Damming the Mekong

Who can resist China?

While researching for today’s Business Standard column I came across Ame Trandem’s article in Vietnam’s Than Nien newspaper on the controversy relating to the Xayaboury (Xayaburi) dam in Laos. Here’s an excerpt of my subsequent email interview with Ms Trandem:

Nitin Pai: What is China’s position on the downstream dams that Laos is building & Thailand is financing? China is not in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) but are they playing a role in the shadows?

Ame Trandem: While China is not a member of the MRC, it is a dialogue partner. However China’s own upstream dam construction on the Mekong has helped pave the way for the Lower Mekong mainstream dams to re-emerge on the region’s agenda. With four dams built on the mainstream in China, its dams have begun changing the river’s hydrology and sediment flow, which has helped ease past reluctance in mainstream dam building.

There are now eleven hydropower dams planned for the Lower Mekong River’s mainstream, with the planned Xayaburi Dam as the most advanced. Since September 2010, a regiona decision-making process for the Xayaburi Dam, located in Northern Laos, has been underway. This regional decision-making process is a requirement of the 1995 Mekong Agreement and is stipulated in the Mekong River Commission’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation Agreement (PNPCA). A joint decision on whether or not to build the dam is expected to be made by the Governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam is expected to be made by 22 April 2011.

Why are the countries ignoring the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report? What are the real reasons?

The MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment report warns of the devastating environmental, social and economic impacts likely to occur if the Lower Mekong mainstream dams are built and thus recommends that regional governments defer decision-making for a period of 10 years. This state-of-the-art report is hard to disgust amongst Xayaburi Dam’s proponents who are seeking to get rich at the expense of river’s rich productivity and the livelihoods and food security of millions of people in the region.

Rather than pushing forward with the regional decision-making process, regional decision-makers would be smart to halt the Xayaburi PNPCA process and take time to carefully assess the findings and recommendations of the SEA report, which points to the dams’ serious risks to the region’s security and stability.

As an advisory body, the MRC should live up to its commitment to helping government’s make informed decisions regarding the sustainability of the Mekong River by helping to lead this process by first translating the full SEA report into local languages and then by helping regional governments hold national and regional consultations over the report’s recommendations.

Have Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos & Vietnam given up on challenging China on the upstream dams? How is it that these countries have not raised the issue at ASEAN+3/ARF/East Asia Summit where they and China are both members of?

As the Mekong River is a unifying feature of ASEAN, environmentalists in the region have continuously requested regional leaders’ to bring the issue of the Mekong dams to the ASEAN platform. While China has made some promises to provide information regarding its dams’ operations to MRC member countries, the members should be demanding that China uphold its commitments. Until China discloses its full water datasets and information on each of its dams, many people in the region will continue to view China with suspicion as its dams are believed to be one of the main factors contributing to last year’s serious drought.

What is the position of ASEAN countries like Indonesia, Singapore, Philippines etc on China’s and Laos/Thailand’s dam building.

The Lower Mekong mainstream dams threaten to adversely impact the region’s stability through the loss of food security and a source of income for millions of people in the region. For this reason, ASEAN countries, such as Indonesia, Singapore and the Philippines should publically call for the Mekong River to remain free-flowing and healthy, while assisting fellow ASEAN countries to study less destructive and more sustainable energy options.