How Asean can avoid Mekong 'water war'

How Asean can avoid Mekong 'water war'

The Xayaburi Dam, the first dam built across the lower Mekong River, came on stream at an interesting time -- just a few days before Thailand hosts the 35th Asean Summit this weekend.

It's interesting because the dam, built in Laos' territory -- along with 10 more that will follow on the Mekong -- has been praised as a high point of partnership and economic cooperation between countries in Asean. It was funded by a Thai investor and over 90% of the power it generates will be sold to the Electricity Generating of Thailand (Egat).

On Tuesday, the dam was opened with a media fanfare -- including large newspaper advertisements boasting of the operator's good intentions and commitment to making Xayaburi a sustainable hydro-dam. On the same day, a group of locals and environmentalists gathered in Chiang Rai to protest against the structure, which they blame for drying out the Mekong River.

Such a paradox calls to mind the theme of the Asean Summit this year -- "Advancing Partnership for Sustainability". For the dam's investor and supporters, Xayaburi symbolises the "advancing partnership" among Asean members. Yet whether it will lead to "sustainability" remains a big question.

Even more worrying is that discussion of Mekong dams seems to be missing from this and previous Asean summit agendas.

Xayaburi is just the tip of the iceberg. China has already built 11 hydro-dams upstream and plans 17 more in years to come. On the lower Mekong, Xayaburi is the first of 11 dams in the pipeline. Most these will be built in Laos, which touts itself as the "battery of Asia".

The investor has sought to justify the need for Xayaburi, and has spent a small fortune on environmental protections and local community development to mitigate impacts from the dam. Even so, there's no denying that the damming spree will fundamentally change the ecology of the whole basin.

Just imagine the sheer volume of water diverted to serve 39 mega dams! This will result in regional competition -- a "war" -- over water resources, along with ecological impact on a scale never before seen in Asean.

These concerns, however, are dismissed as doom-mongering, rather than as a serious challenge to the goal of "sustainability" discussed at Asean meetings. At the 35th Asean Summit, all of the environmental and sustainability projects set to be endorsed belong to the "feel-good" category, like plans for marine debris management and smart cities. None risk souring the investment climate.

It may be unfair to say that Asean has ignored the Mekong subregion, which covers a large part of the region's mainland, since it launched the Asean Mekong River Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) in 1996. However, this sub-regional cooperation has made very little real progress.

Currently, a dozen cooperation projects in the Mekong subregion are being overseen by this and other regional bodies, including the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) -- a Chinese initiative set up in 2015. Other such projects are being overseen at the sub-regional as well as international level, incorporating major dialogue partners in Europe, the US, South Korea and Japan.

What the region urgently needs however is a mechanism that truly gears riparian countries towards sustainable development goals.

The MRC has made efforts in this direction but is hampered by its lack of power in enforcement and political bargaining. Asean can overcome these shortcomings if it takes the lead and works with these bodies to create a genuinely cooperative framework for Mekong decision-making.

One example to emulate would be the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI) in Africa, founded in 1999 by 10 riparian countries. The Nile River Basin -- home to 300 million people in 10 countries, has a host of problems ranging from water access rights, to poor water quality, climate change impacts and dam projects in upstream countries. The NBI started small, as a hub for sharing scientific data, but has grown to become the predominant cooperation mechanism in the basin. Of course, it still has a lot of work to do in achieving the objective of getting all riparian countries to work selflessly together. However, its progress so far makes it a model of riparian cooperation.

If Asean decided to take charge of Mekong River cooperation, the NBI's inclusive policy offers a way. Sharing of Nile water resources is not the task of governments and investors alone; the NBI incorporates civil society stakeholders like farmers, fishermen, NGOs and villagers in its dialogue process. It also includes global actors such as the World Bank and international aid agencies. These bodies help to build scientific and monitoring capacities that create more transparent and inclusive sharing of water resources, rather than leaving them in the hands of governments and business, as has happened on the Mekong.

Anchalee Kongrut

Editorial pages editor

Anchalee Kongrut is Bangkok Post's editorial pages editor.

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