Asia
Commentary

New Publication: Mekong Turning Point

in Program

By Richard Cronin – 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.

Click here to read the entire report, “Mekong Turning Point.”

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