We’re ignoring the risks on the Mekong

opinion January 17, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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Mum on the dams, Thailand backs China’s blasting plan, a danger to wildlife that could shift our border



The government’s confusing stance on the issues that are mounting along the Mekong River is worrying. Vietnam and Cambodia have ramped up pressure on Laos and China over the 

environmental impact of damming the waterway. The livelihoods of millions of people are at stake. And yet Thailand wavers, sometimes appearing disinterested in the risks and other times overtly supportive of potentially ruinous policies.

The Mekong River Commission Secretariat in Vientiane last week opened a meeting of the Joint Committee Working Group on the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA). The subject was the Pak Beng hydropower project, the latest dam proposed by Laos for the river’s main channel.

Laos already has work on two dams underway – the Xayaburi and the Don Sahong, and Thai construction firms are involved. There are fears that both projects could seriously harm river resources and downstream communities. The Pak Beng Dam, sandwiched between the Xayaburi and China’s Jinghong hydropower project, is expected to generate 4.8 gigawatt hours of electricity annually on average for both domestic use and export, chiefly to Thailand.

The PNPCA was established to meet the public-consultation requirements of the 1995 Mekong Agreement that set out international controls over river development. Consultation is by dictate a six-month process, giving everyone a chance to question and discuss key issues that arise over such projects.

Mekong River Commission members Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam can all potentially be aversely affected by any major structure built along the river. Dams that block the flow upstream river weaken the current downstream and hamper the movement of sediment and migrating fish. Every time China and Laos build a dam, Cambodia and Vietnam have to deal with the biggest impacts. Vietnam, furthest downstream, is now facing a dire predicament because the reduced river flow allows saltwater to infiltrate further into the delta. Limitations on fish migration are causing worrisome problems in Cambodia, where millions of people rely on the Mekong for their daily food.

As part of the Prior Consultation, commission members, their citizens and outside agencies concerned about the environment will be able to state their views on the Pak Beng Dam. There is, however, nothing to stop Laos from proceeding with the project anyway and ignoring pleas for mitigation of any anticipated negative impacts.

Thailand has shown no inclination to raise concerns about that dam. The government’s attention has instead lately focused on China’s plan to remove obstacles to navigation along part of the upper Mekong. Thailand late last month endorsed the scheme, by which impeding rocks and islets in the river would be removed with explosives so that 500-tonne Chinese cargo ships can reach Luang Prabang in Laos.

Thai approval has alarmed citizens living along the Mekong in Chiang Rai, who cite important biodiversity among the islets slated to be removed. Under fire, Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha has sent mixed messages, first saying the Mekong is an international river and projects cannot proceed without that consensus, and then declaring that the blasting has nothing to do with Thailand. 

If so, he was pressed, why was his Cabinet’s approval needed? Prayut then allowed that the plan’s possible ecological impact would be carefully studied, along with the related matter of boundary demarcation. Part of the Thai-Lao border is currently marked by a “talweg” – the line of lowest elevation in the river basin. Changes in the river flow could shift that boundary. 

It would be a shame if it took another unruly border dispute to force the government to act responsibly on the multiplying Mekong problems. Far more importantly than boundaries, lives and wellbeing are at stake.