Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:29 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 18:29 | SYDNEY

Mekong dam reprieve

9 December 2011 14:12

At a meeting of the Council of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, yesterday the issue of whether or not Laos should be able to go ahead with its plan to build a major dam on the Mekong at Xayaburi was fudged, with the council members concluding that 'there is a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects'.

In effect, this means construction of the Xayaburi dam has been postponed for the moment.

The anodyne official statement glosses over the sharp divisions that have emerged and continue among the four member states of the MRC (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) on the proposed Xayaburi dam.

It is the first of many dams proposed for the Mekong after it flows out of China. With much preliminary work already completed, it is poised for construction work to begin across the river.

As planned, Xayaburi is no minor, 'run-of-the-river' dam. If built it would stretch 830m across the Mekong and rise to a height of 40m. Its reservoir would stretch back 60km (see my earlier post on the dam and the more detailed Lowy Paper, The Mekong: River Under Threat).

According to environmentalists, civil society groups and, most importantly, the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam, the Xayaburi dam is a 'game changer'. Thailand has taken a hands-off position, not opposing the dam but saying it would hold Laos responsible if the dam caused problems in the future.

The concern has been, and will remain, that if Laos does ahead with Xayaburi it will only be a matter of time before other dams are built on the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia. The attraction of building dams that would generate hydroelectricity that could be sold for foreign exchange would be hard to resist. And if one is built, why not others?

There is almost universal agreement that if the Xayaburi dam is built it would serious negative effects on fish stocks, by blocking fish migration and by distorting the flow of water and sediment down the river, to the detriment of Cambodia and Vietnam. Yet Laos has seemed prepared to ignore the concerns of the critics, including its MRC partners. Most surprisingly of all, Laos seemed ready to incur the wrath of Vietnam, its long-term ally.

Whether this reflects the role China now plays as a supporter and donor is at the very least an open question. Just how long this Perils of Pauline-type saga will continue is impossible to predict, but what is clear is that, when it comes to dams on the Mekong, it is hard to make any judgments that do not take into account national self-interest.

Photo by Flickr user leojmelsrub.