Choking off the Mekong

Choking off the Mekong

The Mekong, Asia's third-longest international river, is increasingly dammed, notably by China in its upper part and Laos in the lower stretches. Threats to the river's diverse ecology, especially its fish population, from existing and planned hydropower projects are imminent but inevitable.

Opposition has grown. But no one can do much to halt the trend.

Pledging to become the battery of Asia, Laos last week announced a plan to build its third dam on the scenic mainstream stretches of the Mekong in Pak Beng. Other Mekong countries and dam opponents this time need to be realistic about how much they can do.

While condemnation or outright opposition without offering practical or appealing options will not stop the tide, damage control can be an alternative.

In addition to the three dams, eight other hydropower projects are planned on the mainstream -- four belong to Laos, two are shared between Laos and Thailand and two more proposed by Cambodia. In the upper Mekong in China, seven mega dams have been built and 20 more are planned.

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995 signed the Mekong Agreement and established the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the only formal regional platform where they can discuss possible negative transboundary impacts that any project can have on their territories.

During the past five years, Laos tabled two projects, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, for the MRC's six-month prior consultation. During the process, opposition and concerns over a potential decline in fish population and farm losses were made known to Laos by both its neighbours and groups of international governments, scientists and environmentalists.

Many have been upset that the process failed to shelve the planned dams. But the process does not give a veto to any country, and is as far as these countries will go in agreeing to commit themselves to negotiations.

Without prior consultation, dams on the river could have been built in secrecy and become merely national issues -- as has happened inside China. Solid and science-based discussion would be minimal given that other regional mechanisms, such as Asean and the Greater Mekong Subregion, have their own priorities. Following the Xayaburi consultation, Laos diplomatically said it would change the dam design to keep impacts to a minimum. It is the best option the three countries have. And they can expect the same answer from Laos on other future projects.

We can expect this type of solution from Thailand and Cambodia once they decide to carry out their projects.

In light of this option, the Mekong countries and others can do their best by trying to make sure that damage from these and other projects will be contained and indeed kept to a minimum. A wide range of studies and experts can be drawn in to help with design changes and other mitigation measures. What they need to do is to keep the door open for discussion under the MRC's umbrella.

Environmentalists meanwhile need to keep an eye on another development trend that could have damaged the Mekong's ecology beyond hydropower. The population of the critically endangered Mekong dolphin, for example, has already shrunk by 50% and it is functionally extinct in Laos, according to WWF. The use of gill nets in fisheries is thought to be the main cause.

Thailand, as a key power importer from Laos, can do more by lowering its projected electricity demand to a more realistic level to avoid power reserve surpluses. Dam-building nations will have to bear the negative effects that large infrastructure will have on the livelihoods of their people. For Laos, the cost to its citizens will be high as fish is one of its most accessible and affordable protein sources.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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