Laos’ Xayaburi Dam Decision Requires a “Mekong Standard”

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The Economic Ministers from the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam – are meeting this week in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for a second attempt at resolving concerns about a large dam that Laos wants to build across the mainstream of the Mekong River, in its northern Xayaburi Province.  In April 2010, at a special MRC meeting in Vientiane, Laos, the senior environmental officials of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam failed to reach agreement on the highly controversial Xayaburi project.  The issue gained heightened importance because the Xayaburi dam is the first of a dozen projects proposed by developers, and considered by governments for the Lower Mekong.

As in April, the upcoming meeting of each country’s economic ministers in Siem Reap, Cambodia, on December 7-8, is held under provisions of a treaty that the four countries signed in 1995, which applies when river projects have transboundary impacts.  At the previous meeting, officials cited concerns from their governments about the risks and uncertainties of the dam, especially its impact on important migratory food fish species, livelihoods, and the flow of nutrient-rich silt to the Mekong Delta.  These concerns long have been cited by nongovernmental environmental organizations and local civil society, and validated by expert studies carried out or commissioned by the MRC. 

The Lao government is eager to expand the already significant revenues that it receives from exports of hydroelectric power, mainly to neighboring Thailand, from numerous dams on tributaries of the Mekong.  Each of the other MRC countries has a different perspective on the issue. 

  • Thailand, which stands to benefit from the electric power, signaled that it is dropping its opposition to the project, but with the proviso that it will hold Laos accountable for any downstream damage to Thai territory.
  • Cambodia, which is considering two mainstream projects of its own, nonetheless appears concerned about the cumulative impact of upstream dams on its Tonle Sap River and Great Lake, the single most important source of food security for a large part of the population.
  • Vietnam, which has no dammable stretch of the mainstream is the most vociferous in its opposition to the Xayaburi dam, supports a 10-year moratorium during which the cumulative impact of all of the dams can be better assessed.

In a part of the world better known for institutional weakness, the 1995 Mekong Agreement and the MRC stand out.   The four Lower Mekong countries have agreed among themselves on a set of Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation, and Agreement (PNPCA) in the case of mainstream projects with transboundary impact, though no country has a veto on another country’s projects. The immediate controversy centers on whether these procedures have been adequately carried out.  Both the governmental and nongovernmental critics of the process have cited inadequate consultation with those most affected by the project, and the fact that the developer’s required Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) only extends to 10 kilometers below the dam site.

The MRC succeeded in playing an important role and fulfilling its obligations thus far in carrying out and commissioning research on the impact of decisions to use the Mekong’s waters and other resources – especially its fisheries and related agriculture.  However, this is not enough to ensure that hydropower development on the mainstream of the river is subjected to rigorous cost-benefit analysis.   In the case of the Xayaburi project, the outcome of the PNPCA process, in particular, could prove the make-or-break issue defining the MRC’s future role.

If the issue was just about the Xayaburi dam alone, the strength of development pressures in all of the MRC countries and their desire to maintain harmonious relations after so many decades of conflict is such that the controversy might not have risen to its current level.   But the transboundary impact of a cascade of proposed mainstream dams, of which Xayaburi is only the first, makes them a fundamental game changer. 

Regardless of the outcome of the upcoming ministerial-level meeting on the Xayaburi dam, the controversy over mainstream dams is not going to go away.  The urgency of the issue requires that the MRC evolve from its current role as a research and advisory body to a more authoritative organization with the power to evaluate the likely environmental and socioeconomic impact of water development projects in line with international best practices.  The costs and benefits of projects should be assessed not only in their nature and overall impact, but also in a comprehensive regional context against a standard that is scientifically sound and acceptable to all MRC governments.

Ultimately, decisions on projects that alter the Mekong from its current baseline state would still be negotiated by member governments at the multilateral level through an expanded PNPCA process or something similar, but with much more rigor.  The MRC Secretariat should be tasked by the Joint Committee to guide a process whereby Mekong governments, with participation from the scientific community and civil society groups, design a new “Mekong Standard” for hydropower or other water-use projects on transboundary rivers.

The Mekong Standard should reflect international best practices for project design and engineering, environmental, and socioeconomic impact analyses, and be based upon a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis that makes clear the “winners” and “losers” both in the domestic and transboundary context.  The rapid socio-economic change occurring in Southeast Asia requires tools and institutions capable of managing the pressures of economic integration, coping with the accompanying social change, and avoiding the tensions of geopolitical competition.  A universally accepted standard would provide an essential tool for cooperatively and equitably managing such change. 

By itself, a Mekong Standard would be a necessary but insufficient tool for the region to navigate all of these challenges.   But with sufficient political will and an appreciation of the disastrous consequences of ad hoc, uncoordinated development of the mainstream, it could prove an important mechanism for the sustainable and equitable use of the shared Mekong River towards a shared regional future.

Photo Credit: Davidlohr Bueso, Flickr,

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