The political economy of the Mekong River Basin shifted in 2011 from policies that exploited this transboundary resource shared by China and five Southeast Asian countries, to potentially more cooperative and sustainable approaches. Whether the effects last remains to be seen, but for once “business as usual” in the construction of environmentally destructive hydropower dams encountered an unforeseen obstacle.
In November 2011, the government of Laos yielded to opposition from Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, and suspended the construction of a 32-meter high dam across the Mekong mainstream in its northern Xayaburi Province for an unspecified period. The first of up to 12 dams planned for the Lao, Lao-Thai, and Cambodian stretches of the river, the future of the Xayaburi dam has huge environmental and socioeconomic consequences for all. Planned dams would block the spawning migration of hundreds of fish species and trap vital silt-borne nutrients, jeopardizing the food security, health, and livelihoods of 60-million people, as well as hard-won regional peace and stability.
The construction of environmentally and socioeconomically destructive dams continues uninterrupted on the upper half of the Mekong River in China’s Yunnan Province, and on major tributaries in Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But as of early 2012 three critical factors have stalled the first proposed mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong:
- The Transboundary Difference – Growing awareness of transboundary impacts is a game-changer. Governments have begun to consider the regional political consequences of the mainstream projects as more than domestic concerns.
- Institutions Matter – The establishment of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995 and the commitment of the four member governments to a specific protocol for establishing and considering-if not necessarily reconciling-the differing national and societal costs and benefits of mainstream dams.
- The Empowerment of Civil Society – Thai civil society organizations injected their opposition to the Xayaburi dam into the national election campaign; the Vietnamese government allowed NGOs to hold anti-dam public meetings and used popular opposition as justification for its refusal to accept the project.
Whether the delay of the Xayaburi project will be a permanent turning point towards cooperative and sustainable water development depends critically on follow-up action by the MRC, its member countries, and the international donor community to fund the studies necessary to support comprehensive analysis of the costs and benefits of proposed dams and water diversions. In the best case, a new norm, a “Mekong Standard” for project planning, engineering, and environmental and socioeconomic impact assessments will emerge and be accepted as a basis for regional decision making.