Amid mounting concerns surrounding the degradation of the Mekong River, authorities from four of the countries responsible for the longest river in Southeast Asia met last week in Laos, raising hopes that solutions could be found for the 70 million people who rely on the Mekong for food.
It’s a task made all the more difficult since frustrated Western donors effectively abandoned the Mekong River Commission (MRC), forcing a restructure of the group controlled by two one-party states in Vietnam and Laos, a junta in Thailand, and democratic Cambodia.
That’s hardly a prescription for transparent management of such an important waterway, where priorities put first the Laos politicians and companies that stand to benefit from construction of nine dams across the mainstream of the Mekong River, and over 100 others elsewhere.
The 45th meeting of the Joint Committee of the MRC in Luang Prabang mattered particularly since Laos, in keeping with its record, will proceed with its third damming of the mainstream of the Mekong River at Pak Beng in the north.
But the meeting failed to address any of the concerns publicly. It rated a threadbare press release on its own website and not much more in the regional, government-dominated media. Its priorities from the start seemed skewered.
In his opening speech, Inthavy Akkharath, MRC Joint Committee chairman, acknowledged “the tremendous challenges lying ahead of us” with “the effects of floods, drought, climate change, possible mainstream development projects, and transboundary impacts from such development.”
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “with the trust and support extended by other JC members, I am fully convinced these obstacles will gradually be overcome.”
By its own definition of its mandate, the MRC is supposed to monitor all sectors, including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management, and preserving important ecosystems. But the Mekong River has been poorly managed in recent decades, with the Lower Basin blighted by upstream damming, drought, increased salinity, and disappearing fish stocks.
Many fishermen are hanging up their nets, claiming they are lucky to catch 15 kilograms of fish a day, compared to 300 kg a day just a decade ago.
It’s a situation that is expected to worsen with increased construction of dams across the Mekong River, which the MRC refers to as “possible mainstream development projects,” ruining natural habitats and fish migration passages to spawning grounds.
Questions sent to the MRC regarding food security, potential divisions over Pak Beng among MRC countries, and Laos’ ambitious dam construction program did elicit a bureaucratic response that referred to a lengthy consultation process.
“The JC [Joint Committee] was a governance meeting. Hence, the meeting did not discuss in detail food security or [the] issue of declining fish stocks,” an MRC spokesperson told this journalist.
Asked whether all four Mekong countries supported Pak Beng, the spokesman added: “There [are] no decisions at this point and the consultation process is still ongoing.” Still, Laos has announced the Pak Beng dam, to feed a 912-megawatt power-plant, will proceed.
At a forum on Pak Beng, held in Vientiane this Friday, “participants will have the opportunity to comment on the preliminary technical review report of the project regarding potential transboundary impacts on hydrology and hydraulics, environment, fisheries, dam safety, navigation, and socio-economic issues.”
But from the Lao standpoint, any discussion on the subject is based on the assumption that its dams – like Xayaburi and Don Sahong – will go ahead. Their future is not debatable. But the fate of the many millions who live in downstream countries is – and the restructured MRC is struggling to deal with this.
Unless the MRC can convince all states to listen to scientific and environmental advice and act against unwarranted dam construction, it risks becoming a rubber stamp and spokesman for the Laos government; hardly a mandate for management of such an important international waterway.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt