There was an aftertaste of bait-and-switch in Laos' presentation to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) late last month. Under pressure from Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and to a much lesser extent Bangkok, Vientiane agreed to consult with its Asean neighbours about the construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Lower Mekong. That was a welcome change from Laos' previous position — the dam, to be situated just 2km upstream of Cambodia's border, would have sweeping, yet poorly understood, consequences for the river and floodplain ecosystems in all four countries.
The Mekong River Agreement in 1995 created a management council that represents the Asean stakeholders, an explicit recognition of shared and possibly conflicting interests. It has been called one of the more effective frameworks of Asean cooperation. But there is also ample evidence that the road paved with good intentions can lead nowhere.
The Xayaburi dam, a Thai-led project 350km upstream from Vientiane, is already under construction, which began before the consultation process was even announced. That history does not exactly inspire confidence. In the case of the Don Sahong, Laos had previously argued that other stakeholders only had to be "notified", not consulted, because the dam was planned on a tributary of the river. That argument is sophistry: the Hou Sahong Channel is probably the most important migratory route for hundreds of species of fish native to the Mekong and integral to subsistence economies in all four countries.
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