Asean ministers have to heed the Mekong's plight
When looking at its small size, Don Sahong hydropower dam in Laos’ Champasak district, which will generate 256 megawatts of electricity, may not seems to pose a threat to the ecology of the Mekong River. But it does.
The Don Sahong site is regarded as the most complex ecological system in the Mekong.
The 5km-long Hou Sahong river, less than 2km upstream of the Laos–Cambodia border, is part of the area where the Mekong spills into multiple channels, forming a unique and vital ecological landscape. It is a major downstream fish migration route.
In a bid to ease the concern of Mekong River Commission (MRC) member countries, Laos has arranged a three-day trip for delegates from Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand to visit the Don Sahong designated site, starting today.
Cambodia fears Don Sahong will affect its fish industry in the Tonle Sap lake, because construction of the dam will severely affect the spawning and migration of fishes in the Mekong River.
Vietnam, meanwhile, worries that the dam will block sediment in the Red Delta, the country’s most fertile rice production area.
Thai villagers living by the Mekong already complained about the river's course and tide changing after six dams built upstream in China started operating a few years ago.
The three countries have already asked Laos to drop the project, or at least conduct a new environmental impact study with participation from riparian countries.
Don Sahong also raises territorial questions as the three neighbours consider the dam as part of Mekong River, and thus subject to the MRC’s Prior Consultation process, which calls for studies of all related projects, with individual riparian countries involved in discussions and evaluation.
As the name suggests, Prior Consultation is not a decision-making process. It serves as a mechanism to allow riparian countries to discuss and help manage the use of the Mekong River.
However, Laos has consistently ignored calls for the dam project to be suspended as it maintains the Hou Sahong is not the mainstream of the Mekong River.
The land-locked country regards Hou Sahong as a local river that it has full sovereignty over and thus is free to develop as it sees fit.
The country has dismissed fears of ecological and fishery impacts, saying there are other remaining water channels for fish migration and the volume of water to be diverted by the dam is not significant.
Vientiane says it needs only to notify riparian countries and then proceed with the project.
This raises questions over how countries on the Mekong can manage and prevent trans-boundary impacts from development projects.
Is it possible that one country will change or even cancel the project if its negative impacts destroy the common good of its neighbours?
Needless to say, the existing mechanism under the MRC fails to address the problem. The commission is a transnational body overseeing the use of Mekong River; it does not have the legal authority to override the sovereignty of each country.
The MRC can only foster dialogue and promote the sustainable use of the river. That means individual riparian countries still have full sovereignty to build dams or do anything they please to the river.
Do not forget, over a decade ago, Thailand blasted reefs — also fish-spawning grounds — to develop a cargo shipment route from China’s Yunnan to Chiang Rai province, despite stern exhortations from Cambodia and Vietnam not to do so.
Currently, conservationists and residents are trying to step up public pressure and conducting awareness-raising campaigns. But this is not enough or in time with development plans.
The most effective approach now would be for Don Sahong opponents to bring the issue to the wider Asean bloc.
In fact, there have been attempts to push environmental issues to Asean forums.
Over recent years, the Asean Civil Society Conference and Asean People’s Forum (ACSC/APF) has been held by the group’s civic sector in parallel with the official Asean Summit. These forums help pushing environmental issues to Asean's foreign ministers.
At the moment, Asean still focuses its dialogue and forum on three issues — political, financial, and social and cultural affairs. Environmental problems are still under the social and cultural pillar.
While the environment, like the issue of human rights, gets more recognition and attention, it deserves a larger forum for more dialogue, especially about environmental impacts and environmental science.
It needs better frameworks that foster consultation and well-informed decision making.
Asean and especially the wider Southeast Asia region will become a regional economic bloc that depends on good cooperation. Development projects that cause trans-boundary ecological impacts will cripple good cooperation.
It is unfair for regional governments to leave the conservation of the Mekong River to local villagers and conservationists.
Authorities need to seek larger and more meaningful ways to better handle this contentious issue.
It is time ministers of four Mekong riparian countries put the discussions on the environment and the Mekong issue on the Asean agenda — sooner, rather than later.
Time and tide wait for no one.
Anchalee Kongkrut is a writer for the Life Section, Bangkok Post.
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