Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Mekong summit unlikely to halt Lao dams

Mekong summit unlikely to halt Lao dams
Published 1 Apr 2014 

The second Mekong River Commission Summit will take place in Ho Chi Minh City on 5 April, with the participation of the prime ministers of the four member states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) and representatives from China and Myanmar. The summit will be preceded by an international conference, beginning tomorrow, which will take as its subject 'Cooperation for water, energy and food security in trans-boundary basins under changing climate'.

In advance of the summit there have been a range of protests from NGOs and organisations concerned with environmental issues and focusing particularly on the construction of the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos.

While these protests have called for a halt to the dams' construction (a most unlikely development as Laos presses ahead), it is far from clear that this issue will be discussed in either the summit or the preceding conference, where at least in terms of the program circulated, the issues under consideration will be of a much more general nature. And even if discussed, it is doubtful the summit will be in a position to do more than record concerns. As always needs to be emphasised, the Mekong River Commission is not a body that has the power to direct or prevent the actions of its members.

Indeed, the experience of the previous Mekong summit, held in Hua Hin, Thailand, in 2010, is a further reason to judge that this event is unlikely to have an effect on the vexed question of dam-building on the Mekong. When the first summit took place there was much concern expressed that the Xiaowan dam being constructed in China was causing depleted water flows down the Mekong. At that time neither Xayaburi nor Don Sahong were under construction. Yet when the final communique was issued, China's actions were not mentioned and the summit, as I noted at the time, ended with a whimper rather than with a bang.

No matter how persuasive the arguments levelled against the dams at Xayaburi and Don Sahong, Laos has shown that it is ready to ignore protests with impunity. There is little reason to think this will change no matter what views are expressed in Ho Chi Minh City.

Photo by Flickr user Indy Kethdy.

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