Last week, a regional forum was held in Luang Prabang for countries in the Mekong River Basin to discuss the Pak Beng hydroelectric dam planned by Laos. It was organised by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the only organisation that works directly with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared resources and sustainable development of the river.
Officially, the event was billed as a "prior consultation process" -- an opportunity for the four MRC members to discuss and understand potential trans-border effects of such a project.
True to its name, the process is all about consultation, not joint decision-making. After all, sovereignty still rules, and each country has the right to use the water in its own territory. No matter the outcome of consultations, Laos will be able to build the development.
Indeed, Laos has already shown that it can and will have its way. The government previously built the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams despite concerns raised by Vietnam and Cambodia. The energy industry is crucial for Laos, which aspires to be the "battery of Asia". It has built numerous plants that sell power to Thailand and China. It plans eight hydroelectric dams on the Mekong and Pak Beng is just the third.
Dam construction is booming in Asia, especially by China and countries in the Mekong Basin, which see hydropower as a source of renewable energy and a way to cut carbon emissions. Governments even see clean energy from hydro-dams as a path toward a low-carbon society.
Cleaner? Maybe. Sustainable? Maybe not. History shows how dam construction can lead to environmental degradation and disrupt livelihoods. When China built the Three Gorges Dam, the world's largest, it led to relocation on a massive scale. Local residents still complain about compensation and the loss of their way of life. There is also scientific evidence that water in dam reservoirs is a major source of methane gas emissions.
Is our push for infrastructure to blame? Definitely not. Dams are useful for irrigation and power production as long as they are built in appropriate locations, with thorough studies and mitigation plans.
Yet, there is great concern about the impact of large-scale hydroelectric dams on biodiversity and transnational river systems such as the Mekong. Vietnam fears freshwater disgorged by rivers into the seas will increase salinity in estuaries and rice paddies -- the economic mainstay of the country. Cambodia -- which has its own plan to build three dams on the river -- has also complained of impact on inland fisheries.
Developments in Laos are an ominous sign for the already fragile ecology of the region. The message is clear: each country has a sovereign right to make use of its resources, but responsibility for trans-boundary effects is a grey area. The MRC has discussed responsibility and financial remuneration if there are "significant impacts" on other countries. But this is something for the future, if it happens at all.
So what will the future of the Mekong Basin be like? Not so good if you look at the trans-boundary effects of 24 hydropower dams. China has already built six and plans six more on the Lancang River, upstream from the Mekong. Another 12 are planned on the lower Mekong.
Indeed, problems are already evident. Last year, countries in the Mekong Basin faced severe drought and China finally decided to release water from one of its dams.
So what should countries in the region do? Of course, a forum such as the one in Luang Prabang is still needed even if it cannot influence decision-making. Member countries need to work together and adopt a more proactive stance under the MRC umbrella. My view is that information and knowledge is the best tool, so there should be more collaboration on studying and monitoring impact.
Last year, Vietnam presented an 800-page study to the MRC on the impact if 12 dams were built on the lower Mekong. That is a good start. If four countries are not enough, others with knowledge of water management, such as Japan or western countries, should join. Remember, environmental problems have no boundaries.
But the most important thing is participation by all stakeholders, more transparency and democratic engagement. That means grassroots communities, not just authorities, investors and energy think-tanks. After all, clean energy and sustainable development are everyone's business. Without more inclusive planning, the region will achieve only clean but non-sustainable energy.