The Mekong could become a river of conflict if countries, notably those in the lower basin, fail to find an effective mechanism to balance demand with the resources available.
Laos’s controversial plan to build a hydropower dam in the mainstream of the mighty river has ignited a new dispute among riparian states as countries downstream are worried about the consequence it would have on the environment and people’s livelihood.
The Xayaburi Dam will be built in mainstream Mekong, approximately 150 kilometres downstream of Luang Prabang, and will have an installed capacity of 1,280MW, most of which would be exported to Thailand. This 810-metre long, 32m-high concrete structure is one of the many dams in mainstream Mekong that Laos plans to build and some will be done as joint ventures with Thailand.
Cambodian Resource and Meteorology Minister Lim Kean Hor sent a letter to Vientiane late last month asking for the project to be delayed until a comprehensive study of the environmental impact is completed.
If Laos goes ahead with the construction, he said it would violate the trust and goodwill of Mekong countries.
People who live along the Mekong River’s right bank in eight Thai provinces are strongly opposed to the dam and are calling on Laos to pay heed to their concerns.
Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – the four countries in the Lower Mekong Basin – signed a pact in April 1995 to work together for the sustainable development of the region. It was under this agreement that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was created to help coordinate and oversee the correct utilisation of the river.
Articles 5, 6 and 26 of the 1995 agreement have clear rules about the utilisation of water in the mainstream body of the river during the wet and dry seasons, as well as the diversion of water from the Mekong.
If the huge Xayaburi dam is built to block the river, it will first need to comply with paragraph B of Article 5, which requires Laos – as a user of the Mekong River – to have “prior consultation which aims at arriving at an agreement by the joint committee”. In other words, Laos needs permission from other members of the MRC to build the dam.
According to Laos Vice Minister of Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong, however, Vientiane did consult the joint committee last year and, therefore, has the right to continue with the project. He added that Laos had not breached the 1995 pact and had complied with all the regulations.
However, downstream MRC members are not satisfied with the project assessment because they believe the dam will pose a threat to fish migration, navigation and the sedimentation of the Mekong River.
Fish means food for riparian communities, while sedimentation is badly needed in downstream countries to fertilise their crops.
Yet, Viravong insists the Xayaburi is an environmentally friendly dam, offering ladders for migrating fish, gates for the passage of boats and a flushing system to release sediment downstream.
However, these features are not enough to make downstream countries feel confident about the dam, and they are calling on the MRC to conduct detailed studies on the environmental impact. The MRC has said it will conduct the study this year, but it may not have specific answers for this particular dam.
Viravong, meanwhile, insists that Laos has already conducted detailed studies on the dam’s environmental impact and is ready to redesign it so it has a minimum impact on downstream countries, yet locals down the river are still saying no.