The Mekong River Commission’s four member countries were due to meet in Vientiane today as they face the biggest test since the commission’s creation in 1995, in considering an agreement on the future of the Mekong river.
The countries—Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam—are to make a decision: whether or not to preserve the free-flowing Lower Mekong, one of the most biologically productive river systems, or to proceed with the first of 11 hydropower dams that could help power the region but devastate the Mekong and change its basin forever.
Analysts and civil society groups say that today’s decision on the 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi dam in Laos will be pivotal for the region.
If approved, the project would have huge environmental and social consequences and increase the likelihood other Mekong dams will go ahead, they said, while the decision also sets a precedent for the MRC’s handling of future dam proposals.
In recent months, however, the differences between the MRC countries’ positions on the Xayaburi project have become increasingly clear.
For Cambodia, the stakes could hardly be higher. According to government estimates, 80 percent of Cambodians’ protein intake comes from freshwater fish—most of it caught in the Mekong and its tributary lake, the Tonle Sap lake—while several million people are directly dependent on fishing for their daily income.
“If built, the Xayaburi dam would unleash massive ecological change to a river that feeds millions of people,” said Ame Trandem, Mekong coordinator at International Rivers.
“It would forcibly resettle over 2,100 people and directly affect over 202,000 people,” Ms Trandem said, adding that the dam could push 41 fish species, including the iconic Giant Mekong Catfish, into extinction, while 23 to 100 migratory fish species would be threatened.
The Xayaburi dam would affect Cambodian fisheries, as up to a third of all Mekong fish could be prevented from completing their long-distance migration cycles.
Te Navuth, secretary-general of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee, said Cambodia was very concerned about the dam’s potential effects and at the meeting it would ask Laos to explain how it would address downstream impacts on fisheries, agriculture and sediment flow.
“What we agreed is to ask [Laos] for more information, more studies,” he said last week. “For example…the [dam’s] fish passage should be modified to accommodate most fish species,” he said.
“We don’t know if there’s a technical option to address this issue.”
He acknowledged, however, that concerned MRC members Vietnam and Cambodia were likely to be at odds with Laos and Thailand.
“It looks like different countries have different interests and opinions. So there might not be a common opinion,” Mr Navuth said.
He said Cambodia could nonetheless not unilaterally block the project.
Under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, MRC governments are required to agree jointly on any project that affects the mainstream Mekong.
Laos sees the dam, which it proposed to the MRC in October, as crucial to its development strategy and its publicly stated goal to become “the battery of Southeast Asia.”
It defended the project in a letter to the MRC in February, which stated the Xayaburi project was “the first environmentally friendly hydropower project on the Mekong,” adding that it “will not have any significant impact on the Mekong.”
Thailand has so far provided low-level support for the project—which is driven by Thai business interests—and has approved purchasing its electricity.
Thai project developer Ch Karnchang Public Co has reportedly already begun work on access roads to the dam site, while Thai banks would finance the $3.5 billion project, which could be completed by 2018.
Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of Thai NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, said last week that campaigns by NGOs and concerns from Thailand’s Mekong provinces had so far made limited impact on the government and wider public opinion.
“Thailand is different from other [countries] in the region, with the fact that the capital […] is not along the Mekong. The northern and northeastern Thailand are always the ‘subordinate’ to Bangkok people as well,” she said.
Vietnam has been very concerned, as it fears any Mekong dam’s long-term effects on fish and rice production in the Mekong Delta and the area’s stability if sediment is blocked.
Trinh Le Nguyen, director of Vietnamese environmental group People and Nature Reconciliation, said Vietnam was taking a strong stand against the dam.
“[R]epresentatives from Vietnam’s government have stated clearly the need to halt Xayaburi and mainstream dams,” he said in an e-mail on Saturday.
“I think Vietnam’s government will actively advocate for better alternatives […] as they’re well aware of potential impacts and consequences on the Mekong Delta as well as regional economies and stability.”
Regional analysts said the MRC’s decision was hugely important for the Mekong region, but they predicted that a full approval or rejection of the dam was unlikely.
Carl Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the University of South Wales at the Australian Defense Force Academy, said that, as the MRC statutes required unanimous agreement, a compromise was expected.
“The reality is that even if Cambodia and Vietnam object, they cannot prevent Laos from proceeding with the Xayaburi dam,” he wrote in an e-mail on Saturday.
“The most likely outcome will be some sort of agreement to permit Laos to continue with construction but at the same time take additional steps to meet the concerns of Cambodia and Vietnam,” he said.
“In other words, the decision-making process is likely to be extended,” he said. “The least likely is that all four countries will reach agreement to defer the Xayaburi project for 10 years.”
He said, however, that if this were to occur, “it would definitely shelve all other proposals to construct dams on the mainstream of the Mekong river.”
Philip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Center at the University of Sydney, said it was difficult to predict today’s outcome.
“It may well be that there is a further postponement, but it’s really anybody’s guess right now,” he said in an e-mail. “[I]t would take an about-face for Vietnam to accede to it going ahead.”
Mr Hirsch stressed that the decision was “extremely important as a precedent” for how the MRC will deal with future Mekong dam proposals.
“It will determine whether due process is to be followed, in which case it will be much more difficult to make the case for Mekong mainstream dams,” he said, “[o]r whether backroom deals are done to allow [dams] to go ahead despite the scientific, environmental and social concerns.”
An MRC study released in November advised that countries defer all Mekong dams for 10 years due to their far-reaching consequences. It estimated that six Mekong dams alone could wipe out 600,000 tons of the region’s 2-million-ton fish catch by 2030.
Cambodia could lose a third of its current protein supply, and 1.6 million fishermen would be affected.
China, which is not a river commission member, is meanwhile completing four dams on the upper Mekong, while another four dams are planned to complete the massive cascade of hydropower installations.
Civil society groups and many foreign donors, including the US and the World Bank, support the MRC study’s conclusion and are against Laos’ proposal.
The NGOs have also criticized the MRC’s decision-making process, saying it lacked openness and public accountability, while Mekong experts have said the Xayaburi’s environmental impact assessment has been poorly researched.
Minh Bunly, Tonle Sap coordinator for the fisheries NGO FACT, said concerns about the proposed Mekong dams were slowly spreading among the roughly 1 million families living on the lake.
“Only about 30 percent of people learned about this dam, and they are so worried,” he said, adding that fishermen hoped the government would protect their livelihoods.
“We already see that this year the Mekong water does not flow as usual,” he added.
Kin Sok, a fisherman from Kratie province’s Sambor district, said information about upstream dams was scarce but fears were growing in Mekong fishing communities.
“We worry about the lost of the fish,” he said. “Big dams will cause the floods or shallow waters and make people’s livelihoods suffer.”