Mekong Politics: The Xayaburi Dam Controversy

Can we get countries to trade short-term development for long-term sustainability?  This will be a crucial question in the next 20 years of politics.  If the answer is ‘no’, we are in for some significant trouble.  This very question is being directly asked over the past few months with the Xayaburi dam controversy along the Mekong river.

The Mekong River runs through six countries in Southeast Asia and is a critical watershed for millions of people in the region.  Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand formed the Mekong River Commission in 1995 aiming for the sustainable development of the river with coordinated actions.  Myanmar and China are important basin states that are not part of the MRC but of crucial importance to the health of the river.

However, the big issue now is that Laos has plans for a massive dam along the Mekong, the Xayaburi dam.  Since 2010 it has opened the discussion to input from the other MRC states and has promised to heed decisions reached in that forum.  The Economist explains what has happened recently:

On July 13th, at an annual summit for the foreign ministers of ASEAN, the envoy from Laos made a familiar declaration: that work on the Xayaburi dam has been suspended, pending further studies….Only three days later Viraphonh Viravong, a deputy minister of energy, contradicted the foreign minister’s statement. A tour of the site, sponsored by the government of Laos, served to rubbish the foreign minister’s statement at ASEAN. As Mr Viraphonh made clear to a party of invited visitors, including MRC officials, diplomats and a few technical experts on fisheries, groundwork is going ahead after all, without any waiting for a further assessment of the project’s impact on the river.

International Rivers explains that this groundwork is not of any limited extent:

The Xayaburi Dam site in Laos is abuzz with activity these days. Thousands of laborers and dozens of construction vehicles work around the clock to finish the dam on schedule by 2019. Access roads, worker camps, and transmission lines have been built. Villages are being resettled. The river has already been widened at one point, and a dike cuts into the river at another point. One of the project’s lead engineers, the Pöyry Group, told a delegation of visiting diplomats last week that the coffer dam—which diverts the river while the permanent dam is built—will be completed by next May. Soon after that, the dam itself will begin to appear.

There are of course various different definitions of weak international agreements: But one of the weakest is when promises made in the international commission are treated as largely irrelevant.  Laos (and Thailand–which is a primary pusher in this effort) are not simply violating the spirit, and probably the letter, of the Mekong River Agreement; more importantly, they are promising to do further study in that forum and then continuing with activities without the study.  This is highly problematic for the future of the Mekong and its environment.

At least in the Mekong river basin currently, pressure is not facilitating countries working in concert to improve (or not destroy) their shared environmental resources.  The next 12 months are not just important for this dam, but for what lesson we are provided in terms of a lesson to the persistent question: Can we actually work towards collective environmental progress?

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