Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Laos: Playing to win in Mekong hydropower game

Laos' 'success' on the Mekong could prove deeply costly for the people of Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong still runs full and strong through Luang Prabang, but for how long? Photo by the author.
The Mekong still runs full and strong through Luang Prabang, but for how long? Photo by the author.
Published 9 Dec 2016 

At a time of deep concern about the ecological future of the Mekong River (declining fish stocks, reduced water and sedimentation flows, and destructive saltwater incursion into the Mekong delta), Laos, the minnow of the participants in the Mekong River Agreement of 1995, is continuing to pursue its goal of becoming the 'Battery of Southeast Asia' through the construction of hydropower dams on the river's mainstream.

It has done so by exploiting both the weakness of the agreement and indecision, policy weakness, and self-interest from its other parties: Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. This all matters for the 60 million plus people who live in the Lower Mekong Basin, where eight in every ten people depend on the river for food and agriculture.

Central to the apparent success of Lao policy has been the skill and drive of Viraphonh Viravong, the Australian-trained Lao Deputy Minister for Energy and Mines (he graduated in Mechanical Engineering from the Footscray Institute of Technology in 1976). He has repeatedly stated his government's view that 'if Laos is to escape least-developed status by 2020, this (developing Mekong dams) is our only choice'. He has also emphasised that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has no legal mandate to block Lao plans to build dams on the river. As he tartly observed two years ago:

...the 'Procedures for Notification Prior Consultation and Agreement set forth in the 1995 (Mekong) Agreement are not a mechanism for approving or rejecting any particular project. The MRC is not a building permits office.

It now seems unlikely that the Lao government will build all nine dams projected for construction within its territory. But it has two dams under construction, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, has announced its intention to commence construction next year on a third, at Pak Beng, and there are indications that it is committed to building a fourth dam at Pak Lay. Until recently there was some uncertainty as to how far construction had advanced at Don Sahong, but recdent photos show much preparation and preliminary construction has already taken place.

What does this mean for the Mekong's future and why have Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam not been more vigorous in their response to Lao policy? In Thailand's case, the answer is fairly clear. In contrast to Cambodia and Vietnam it is less dependent on fish caught in the Mekong for its population. Moreover, Thailand plans to purchase electricity from the mainstream Mekong Lao dams, a point reinforced by the fact that the Xayaburi dam is being constructed by a major Thai company, CH Kamchang. Thailand's immediate concern in relation to the Mekong is the role the river plays as a source of large-scale water diversion for its drought-threatened northeastern region.

The Cambodian government's failure to take a more critical view of Lao actions is less easily explained, particularly as senior officials have in the past expressed serious concerns about the impact of the Don Sahong dam in the far south of Laos on fish stocks, both in public and on several occasions in private observations to me. The basis for this criticism is substantial scientific evidence presented by a range of bodies. As long ago as 2007, the WorldFish Center warned that the Don Sahong dam would have a major effect on the availability of fish stocks in Cambodia, where 80% of the population's animal protein intake comes from fish caught in the Mekong River system.

But more recently Prime Minister Hun Sen has given explicit support to the dam. There is no obvious reason for this, even taking into account the assurance given to the Cambodia government earlier this year by a Lao minister that the dam would not impact on fisheries, a position long advocated by Viraphonh Viravong and repeated in his statements last year. To what extent Hun Sen's position reflects a desire to deflect attention away from the probable deleterious effects on fish stocks resulting from the construction of Cambodia's own Lower Se San 2 dam on a major Mekong tributary in Stung Treng province cannot be judged.

In some ways Vietnam's muted reaction is the most puzzling of all, given the vital importance of the Mekong delta as a productive region for Vietnamese agriculture. Five or six years ago, a journalist from the Ho Chi Minh City-based newspaper Thanh Nhien was in frequent touch with me to discuss stories on the problems facing the Mekong delta region as a consequence of expected damage from China's dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, but this contact has ceased. It is as if the Vietnamese government places relations with China and Laos above expressing concerns about what is happening and might happen in the Mekong delta.

As Dr Ngo The Vinh, an indefatigable US-based commentator on Mekong issues, has commented:

 ...the Vietnam National Mekong Committee is still located at 23 Hàng Tre Street in Hanoi. So far, this organization is unable to enunciate a consistent policy to prevent or oppose the series of mainstream hydropower dams in Laos. From its distant location, the Committee cannot or does not want to hear the death knell and the pounding of nails being driven into the Mekong Delta¹s coffin that reverberate from a region on its death's throes and dying a slow death.

It will be somewhere between five and ten years before the full impact of the Lao dams can be assessed. Whether Minister Viraphonh Viravong will be justified in claiming the benefits of the hydropower dams built in Laos over that period is itself a contested issue, as reflected in a very recent publication from the Stimson Center in Washington DC.

But short-term benefits from the sale of electricity, even if they eventuate, will have to be judged against long-term ecological costs that now seem an inevitable result of the Lao embrace of dams that will transform the Mekong. Laos may have won the game in showing that it has been able to build dams on the Mekong and that the Mekong Agreement is a seriously week reed, but in doing so its 'successful' gaming could prove deeply costly for the people of Cambodia and Vietnam.

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