Troubled Future for the Mekong

Stimson Spotlight

Troubled Future for the Mekong

By Zach Dubel - Laos’ intention to build a cascade of up to nine mainstream dams on the Mekong River has posed a significant challenge to the future of the region’s cooperative development. Laos stands to benefit modestly from the construction of the dams by selling the bulk of their power production primarily to neighboring Thailand. However, the detrimental environmental and social impacts of the dams would heavily outweigh their benefits, particularly for Cambodia and Vietnam downstream.

These mainstream dams would create a virtually impassable barrier to migrating fish and the nutrient-rich sediment that nourishes the floodplains and the Mekong Delta. Despite pressures from a rapidly growing population and environmental mismanagement, the Mekong remains the world’s most productive freshwater fishery, and millions still rely on the natural functions of the river for their livelihood.

Tensions are already high as a result of Laos’ decision to move forward with the Xayaburi Dam in the northern part of the country as the first mainstream dam. Despite resistance to the project from many people and organizations across the region and an initial promise to suspend the project until their concerns were addressed, Laos eventually ended the suspension after months of uncertainty and “site preparation.”

Under a 1995 agreement between the four Lower Mekong countries – Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – any mainstream development proposals must be submitted to the Mekong River Commission for a period of review and agreement on how to proceed. This process of notification and prior consultation appeared to be working when it was first invoked for Xayaburi Dam and construction was suspended.

However, the final outcome bore little resemblance to a consensus-based result. The impact assessments conducted specifically for Xayaburi Dam extended only a few kilometers up and downstream – hardly a transboundary length – and were criticized for failing to provide an accurate picture of the potential impacts on the full length of the river.

Laos and the developer have since claimed that Xayaburi was redesigned to be “transparent” with little to no downstream impacts, though there is no way to verify this as the revised plan for the dam has not been publicly released. Critics are quick to point out that no fish passage system for a dam of that size has ever been effective, particularly for a river as little understood, productive and diverse as the Mekong.

Now Laos looks to be moving forward with two more dam projects – Pak Beng in the far north and Don Sahong near the Lao-Cambodian border. The latter is perhaps the more problematic and imminent of the two. While it is critical that Pak Beng undergo the same period of consultation and agreement, the Lao government has already indicated that it believes Don Sahong is exempt from this process. The dam would block only one of many channels of the Mekong and because of this Laos has claimed its impact would remain minimal.

However, there is a catch. This particular channel is the only that remains reliably passable in the area for fish during the lowest points of the river in the dry season. The rest are generally too shallow to allow migrating fish to traverse their length. 

Efforts to prepare the site, curb fishing and clear alternate channels for fish passage before a scientific impact assessment is ever conducted for the dams design indicates two things. First, Laos looks prepared to follow the now familiar path of the Xayaburi Dam and sidestep the purpose of the Mekong River Commission. Second, the environmental impacts of the so-called “transparent dams” may not be as minimal as claimed.

The next dam will be a vital test for the future of the Mekong River and the Mekong River Commission. If it moves forward without getting an accurate, credible and transboundary impact assessment – along with the consent of Laos’ downstream neighbors – then the Mekong River Commission may be doomed to political irrelevance. Without the commission, the prospects for future cooperative development of the river will likely be doomed as well.

Furthermore, the construction of Don Sahong near the Lao-Cambodian border may start to shift the Cambodian calculus on the benefits of their own two planned mainstream dams, as the value of fisheries diminish.

Preventing this outcome will require three things:

· Laos’ downstream neighbors must remain persistently vocal in their opposition to the manner in which Laos has begun pushing these projects forward.

· Laos must have an alternative incentive that provides it with some economic benefit, as it is an extremely poor nation with limited development options.

· Vietnam and Cambodia must also reign in their own environmentally damaging dam projects, because those projects severely undermine their concerns about projects upstream in Laos’ eyes.

A potential solution to all of these requirements would be the adoption of a common standard for acceptable transboundary impact for all development projects on the river. By setting a limit for maximum impact that would not reject all dams, Laos would be provided with a way to build a few dams without arousing the ire of its downstream neighbors, while also dropping plans for the worst of these projects. Both for equity and practicality, the restrictions required for cooperative water management should not be imposed on Laos alone.

While Vietnam has admittedly canceled a number of its dam projects in recent times, the nation has already constructed many dams along tributaries of the Mekong. Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 Dam will in many ways be far more damaging than Xayaburi. For the goals of the cooperative development to succeed, there can only be one standard – an agreed upon Mekong Standard.

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Photo by International Rivers via flickr