Diplomatic Flood Gates Open With Mekong Dam Development


These days on the Mekong River, things are getting dam complicated.

A recent impasse between countries of the Mekong River Commission (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam) over a proposed dam within the borders of Laos along the mighty Mekong River has brought a temporary standstill to the planned project, to the chagrin of the Laos government. The outcome of the Xayaburi dam project, which may be decided in the next few months at a ministerial level meeting of the parties involved, will be telling for the future direction of hydropower in the Mekong river basin. International support must be levied towards backing a thorough environmental and risk assessment, with broad ecosystem analysis.

Rivers are dynamic geographic phenomena; natural resources in motion, seemingly in one direction (we’ll get to that later), carrying amazing productivity. Drinking water, nutrients, protein, minerals, irrigation — raw materials that millions of people (60 million in the Mekong system) rely on for basic subsistence needs — flow through multiple political jurisdictions of the Greater Mekong region. What happens upstream undoubtedly affects what happens downstream, what happens in the hills affect those in the lowlands and vice versa. Rivers connect people and are a tangible example of a global “commons” that must be managed and allocated thoughtfully and regionally, at a scale non-compatible with arbitrary political jurisdictions, of which post-colonial Southeast Asia is poster-child.

Vietnam, one of three dissenting governments, recommended a moratorium on dam construction until a more adequate environmental impact assessment has been completed, or until new technologies that could limit environmental harm could be implemented.

There are numerous potential dangers to the 11 current proposed dams on the Mekong River. Ecosystem-level failures can include nutrients not making it to the delta rice paddies; beaches on the coast of Vietnam washing away; fish migrations unable to make it upstream to lay eggs and back downstream again to resume adult life; extinction of charismatic species like Irrawaddy dolphin and giant Mekong catfish; and irrigation patterns being disturbed. These are only some of the complex effects of tampering with the fragile equilibrium of wet season, dry season water movement. 

The three dissenting countries, especially Vietnam with its call for a 10-year moratorium, are essentially arguing for the precautionary principle. This is the idea that the party proposing the potentially damaging project is responsible for proving that it is not harmful to a certain level of certainty. While not a guaranteed solution to the problem, this idea shifts the burden of proof from the potentially harmed, often relatively helpless agent, to the actor that is initiating the potentially harmful action. The precautionary approach supports a moratorium in which natural and social sciences can give us a more thorough understanding of the risks associated with a project at this scale.

When ecosystem services, upon which the poorest and least adaptable people rely, are at risk, there is no excuse to initiate construction without a thorough understanding of its systematic impacts. 

Any kind of study must embrace ecosystem management, the realization that ecosystems are complex physical systems that add up to more than the sum of the parts. This concept, forever embraced by traditional societies, needs to be better integrated into a policy framework for international resource management. The existence of a four country international board to discuss hydropower issues that will have cascading affects on all parties is a great first step, but Laos and the other countries must set the precedent of constructive group dialogue instead of individual blind action.

Whether the dam goes forward or not, with or without “alterations” to the design which Laos claims should quell some of Vietnam’s downstream qualms, hydropower investment on the Mekong will be among the most important environmental crossroads over the next decade. Laos has eight planned dams on the Mekong, with a goal of building its economy by selling electricity to the surrounding countries of the region, especially neighboring Thailand. It is imperative to share the lessons we have learned through our own resource decisions (see salmon/dam trouble in the Pacific Northwest or major sediment loss in the Mississippi delta) and to encourage these development-minded governments to undergo a thorough assessment of the risks and potential alternatives to their proposed development decisions, always thinking at the ecosystem scale.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons