Mekong talks not inclusive

Mekong talks not inclusive

Arriving late is always better than never. So, after years of witnessing the ecology of the Mekong River being choked by the development of hydro-powered dams, communities in this region can have some hope after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) stepped in and co-hosted the Water Security Dialogue, held in Laos from yesterday until today.

The Mekong River has become a new environmental battleground over water-sharing issues. Many countries have become vocal about how to share the river. The United States government created the Mekong-US Partnership last year and began supporting many Mekong River projects. Meanwhile, China, which has developed over two dozen dams along the upper stretch of the river in its own territory, created the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Forum in 2016.

Yet Asean's dialogue plan with the MRC stands out among the other initiatives as Asean and the MRC can be chaired by one of four riparian countries.

The event therefore has an aura of independence -- meaning no superpower nation is involved. The event has the potential to produce a meaningful mechanism to solve disputes over the Mekong River if it is appropriately carried out with active engagement from all stakeholders. Asean and the MRC plan to hold the even once every two years -- the next one is in 2023.

The event has been far from perfect. Attended by officials via an online communications platform, the organisers have been criticised for excluding members of local communities, civil society groups and NGOs, who have criticised management of the river in the past. Without meaningful engagement with civil society groups, each meeting will be just another talk shop.

The MRC and Asean will face challenges as there has never been a legal framework for transboundary river water allocation. The river has become a hotspot for hydro dam development, and each country insists their sovereignty allows them to develop water resources in their territory.

China has built almost two dozen dams along the upper stretch of the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang, affecting the management of the river downstream. Laos inspires to become the "battery of Asia", building dozens of hydro dams to sell the electricity they produce. There are foreign investors involved.

Thai investors are big players in the construction of hydro dams in Laos, with Thai commercial banks financing these projects. The Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand is a loyal buyer of electricity from Lao dams despite an oversupply of local reserves. The difficult task is convincing countries and developers to reduce the environmental impacts of projects or even revise those that are prone to disasters.

These tasks may seem insurmountable, but interested parties must not be disheartened. The case of the Blue Nile River concerning the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam should serve as an example. Countries along the banks of the river -- Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia -- have been trying to settle disputes over water allocation and the impact of the dam.

The negotiation process has been ongoing for over a decade, without a final outcome. Yet these three countries have resolved several issues on resource- and information-sharing and cooperation plans to reduce the negative impacts. The key to a prosperous Mekong region is to have meaningful dialogues with environmental and social impacts the centre of the talks. Another aim is that the MRC and Asean must include all stakeholders, especially villagers.


Bangkok Post editorial column

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

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