By Richard Cronin – Statements by Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in recent weeks appear to indicate a significant shift in Thai policy toward hydropower on the Mekong River. Vietnam already has become alarmed about the massive hydropower dam cascade that China is building in Yunnan and the plans by Laos and Cambodia to build a string of dams on the Lower Mekong that would have the unintended effect of decimating migratory fisheries. To date, the quasi-governmental Electric Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is the largest financer and customer for scores of dams being built on major tributaries of the Mekong in Laos, but the prospect of mainstream dams – many of which would be financed and constructed by Chinese banks and state-owned companies – has raised the debate over the extensive damming of rivers in the highlands of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia to a much higher pitch.
Vietnam, especially, is deeply concerned about the downstream consequences of both China’s massive cascade of eight hydropower dams in its mountainous Yunnan Province and the more recent plans for the construction of eleven dams in Laos and two planned by Cambodia on the middle and lower stretches of the 4,880 kilometer long river. Experts widely agree that the Yunnan cascade and the mainstream dams planned by Laos and Cambodia will alter the timing and flow of the river’s natural hydrology and hold back flood-borne silt. The Vietnamese fear that the upstream dams will greatly accelerate the pace at which the most exposed parts of the Mekong Delta are already disappearing into the advancing South China Sea, while also degrading fresh water flowing in from the North and allowing salt water to penetrate more deeply into the Delta’s rice fields. The Delta produces 40 percent of Vietnam’s rice, the largest share of its fish catch (both wild and farm-raised), and is home to 17 million people.
In a June 19, 2009 meeting with representatives of the Save the Mekong Coalition, a grouping of some twenty NGOs, Abhisit appeared to depart from Thailand’s traditional policy of looking to the Mekong Basin for new sources of electrical power to meet growing demands for powerand water. The prime minister told the delegation “that he will take up the issue of dam construction on the Mekong River for discussion at the bilateral, regional and international levels, whether with the Mekong River Commission, with Thailand’s fellow ASEAN members, or with ASEAN’s dialogue partners… [but] he stressed that the Thai government alone cannot make a decision to agree or disagree with the construction of any particular dam on the Mekong River as the Mekong is an international river, belonging to many countries; therefore, it is necessary for his government to consult with other riparian nations.” The meeting with the environmental advocates followed the initiation by Save the Mekong on June 18, 2009 of a world-wide campaign against hydropower dam construction on the Mekong mainstream, backed by thousands of supportive postcards from throughout the world.
Prime Minister Abhisit also told the delegation that he had directed EGAT and other agencies to reexamine the country’s electricity needs after the passing of the current global economic crisis, which has depressed demand from pre-crisis levels. In the past, EGAT has been criticized for overlyestimating demand forecasts that have led to excessive investment in hydropower dams and other sources at a significant unnecessary cost to Thai taxpayers and electricity customers.
Significantly, Prime Minister Abhisit emphasized that Thailand alone could not “agree or disagree” to projects proposed for an international river, and he appeared to put down a marker that the construction of dams should take place only after “consultation … based on data obtained from surveys that conform to international standards and are acceptable to all parties involved.” A total of 11 dam projects have been planned for construction on the segment of the Mekong River that runs through Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. The 1995 Mekong Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River, which established the Mekong River Commission (MRC) requires notification and consultation on projects with significant downstream impact but does not give one country the power to veto the “national” projects of another. At the end of the day, these issues will be decided through politics, not the Treaty, which opens up the possibility of future upstream-downstream conflict when perceived vital national interests are at stake.
Prime Minister Abhisit brought this new perspective to a meeting in Hanoi with Vietnamese leaders on July 12. In a joint statement, Abhisit and Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung pledged to work with each other and other countries in the Mekong basin to both tap and protect water resources of the Mekong River in order to protect legitimate and long-term rights of all downstream and upstream countries for the sake of common sustainable development in the sub-region”.
Most recently, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demonstrated a renewed US interest in the region. She signed the Instrument of Accession to the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, is requesting a seven-fold increase in USAID funding in the region and stated the US government’s intention to open a US mission to ASEAN. She also convened the first US-Mekong Ministerial Meeting with foreign ministers from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to discuss “issues of common interest, particularly in the areas of the environment, health, education, and infrastructure development.”
photo credit: Chris Lang, http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrislang/70834966/