Damning the Mekong

Over the last week the events relating to the building of the Xayaburi dam have once again surfaced in the Indo-China region. The battle lines are now becoming more sharply drawn as external powers, like the United States, have started to influence the politics in the region. Laos, one of the smallest states in Southeast Asia, is figuring prominently in the dichotomous debate between developmental agendas and environmental protection, which had become the crux of the arguments against the building of the Xayaburi dam, a massive hydroelectric project, on the Mekong river.
The debate centres on the right of an individual country to give a go-ahead to the proposed project, thereby ignoring the concerns of the regional players. In this case the right of Laos to move ahead on a developmental project that will impact the environment of the region is the core contention. In the long term, this will vitiate regional cooperation, as the countries likely to be affected by the project will face more losses than gains. There is already strong opposition to the project from Thai communities living along the riverbanks who have for generations used fishing as their livelihood. The conflict centres on their rights versus those of the Laotian government’s to look for ways and means to increase its power production.
The latest in this issue has been a warning from the US government to the Laotian government that the project could severely impact the lives of those dependent on Mekong river for food and livelihood.
The dam is proposed along the mainstream of the river where the river is at its widest. The point at which the dam is to be constructed will have an impact on agriculture and fisheries.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has stated in its report in August 2012 that the region’s rich biodiversity will be affected if the river is dammed. The region is rich in resources and has approximately 1,800 species of freshwater fish, which are an integral part of the region’s food system. The construction of a dam will erode the region’s reliance on marine life by nearly 30 per cent, upset its ecological balance and put a question mark over its food security.
From the Laotian side the dam is a significant developmental project that would ensure 1260 MW of power generation, which would be critical to boost its growing economy. Among the countries of Southeast Asia, Laos remains one of the poorest and least developed. Since the 1970s, Laos has followed a socialist political structure with a single party system backed by the military. One of the main resources on which the country’s development is based relates to its output of power, the potential for which is estimated to be around 23,000 MW. However, the current output is just a small percentage of this potential, and the Xayaburi dam project will mitigate the deficiency.
The construction of the dam is backed by a Thai-based company. And it is believed that the projected power capacity will be sold to Thailand for the profits and these will be used for development within Laos. The political leadership within Laos is looking at the fact that the project will have a lucrative advantage for the country, but is reluctant to address the regional concerns over the ecological damage that could occur from the construction of the dam. In fact the dam is seen as the first step in the construction of several dams along the Mekong, which will severely impact the ecological balance within the river system.
It is important to remember that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has also expressed concerns over the construction of the dam. The MRC is an inter-governmental committee, which comprises all the member countries of the Mekong river basin. It was set up in 1995 with members from the riparian countries to address issues relating to the Mekong river and has members from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. Both China and Burma are dialogue partners in the MRC. The focus of the MRC is to promote and coordinate sustainable development and management of the Mekong and its related resources. The MRC in 2010 suggested that there should be a decade-long moratorium on the proposed project to build the Xayaburi dam so that the long-term impacts of building such a dam could be assessed. However, the Laotian government ignored the report and pushed forward with the preliminary arrangements for the dam construction. It was decided in 2011 that the member countries must give their go-ahead for the project to continue.
Another likely area of conflict is going to be among the donor agencies like the World Bank, Asian Development Bank and the Japanese government. They need to rethink their assistance to Laos if it insists on continuing with the project. The country needs assistance and aid from these donor agencies to continue with the economic boost it has seen in recent times. Also it is integral to bring Laos on par with both Cambodia and Vietnam where economic growth has been greater. The Laotian government cannot push the agenda without international support, which will likely hamper the key areas of assistance and aid.
For Laos this is a critical question that will test both its nationalist sentiment in pushing its own agenda forward as well as its role as a responsible regional player. Its closest ties in the region is with Vietnam — Laos shares more than 100 years of common history and a special relationship with Vietnam. So the Vietnamese backing to the MRC decision will impact the way these two countries will relate to one another. But in the larger context the need to safeguard the Mekong and its wider environment will be far more critical.

The writer is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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