Bait-and-switch in dam ‘consultation’

Bait-and-switch in dam ‘consultation’

There was an aftertaste of bait-and-switch in Laos' presentation to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) late last month. Under pressure from Hanoi and Phnom Penh, and to a much lesser extent Bangkok, Vientiane agreed to consult with its Asean neighbours about the construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Lower Mekong. That was a welcome change from Laos' previous position — the dam, to be situated just 2km upstream of Cambodia's border, would have sweeping, yet poorly understood, consequences for the river and floodplain ecosystems in all four countries.

The Mekong River Agreement in 1995 created a management council that represents the Asean stakeholders, an explicit recognition of shared and possibly conflicting interests. It has been called one of the more effective frameworks of Asean cooperation. But there is also ample evidence that the road paved with good intentions can lead nowhere.

The Xayaburi dam, a Thai-led project 350km upstream from Vientiane, is already under construction, which began before the consultation process was even announced. That history does not exactly inspire confidence. In the case of the Don Sahong, Laos had previously argued that other stakeholders only had to be "notified", not consulted, because the dam was planned on a tributary of the river. That argument is sophistry: the Hou Sahong Channel is probably the most important migratory route for hundreds of species of fish native to the Mekong and integral to subsistence economies in all four countries.

This may seem to be a dry and dusty bureaucratic distinction between "notification" and "consultation", but it strikes to the heart of the 1995 Mekong River Agreement. There is no more obvious example of trans-border consequences than Mekong River development. The six dams in the Upper Mekong, constructed unilaterally by China, already have ramifications all the way to the Mekong Delta.

The offer of consultation — the “bait” — at first glance seemed to satisfy the requirements of the Mekong Agreement. The Laos envoy to the MRC said the decision showed a “courteous” approach on the part of Vientiane. Never mind that consultation is required by the 1995 accord, a little courtesy never goes amiss.

The “switch” only becomes apparent when “consultation” is defined, in the case of the Don Sahong dam and generally for the MRC. As the Lowy Institute for Public Policy, an Australian think tank, points out, actual dam construction is slated for December. The six-month consultation period that was agreed upon tacks on another month, meaning that Laos’ concession is more symbolism than substance.

Moreover, the MRC’s chief executive made explicit at the June meeting that construction could continue during the consultation process. In the case of Don Sahong, bridges and other supporting infrastructure are being built — in short, the dam is considered a fait accompli.

Even in the best-case scenario, the consultation process is non-binding and depends not only on what participants bring to the table, but what the Lao government and project managers choose to take away. In Thailand, there is a history of civil society and environmentalist activism that has often stymied the powers-that-be, the current military rule notwithstanding. To a lesser extent, activists will challenge the government in Cambodia; in Laos and Vietnam, it’s not considered a very good idea, nor are there the same traditions of civic activism.

However, the governments in Phnom Penh and Hanoi have been openly concerned about Don Sahong and other planned Lower Mekong dams. They have good reason. The Mekong’s fisheries feed tens of millions of people; Vietnam’s rice bowl in the Delta sustains many millions more, not to mention a national economy.

Bangkok has been quieter in its criticism despite the shared interests at stake. The Xayaburi dam is a Thai-funded project designed specifically to provide electricity to Thailand — Bangkok doesn't exactly occupy the high moral ground. In a landmark decision also late last month, the Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear a case against the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand questioning the legality of buying electricity from the Xayaburi dam in light of Thai environmental laws. The decision to consider the case breaks new ground — it’s the first suit on trans-border issues of its kind to be heard.

There is a danger here that relatively prosperous and developed nations will chide Laos for pursuing much-needed development. Instead, there should be cooperation based on shared interests, which is after all the rational for the MRC’s existence. Given population pressure and development imperatives, hydropower construction is an inevitability. Whether it destroys the Mekong, however, is a choice.

The siting of Don Sahong on a migratory lifeline is an obvious problem, with mitigation efforts poorly thought out. The environmental activist group International Rivers has asked for a moratorium on dam building on the Lower Mekong for 10 years. That may be unlikely, but clearly a six-month “courtesy” period doesn't suffice.

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