Sunday February 3, 2013
The Mekong’s uncertain future
By PRASHANTH PARAMESWARAN
If riparian states and other interested parties are serious about averting a future crisis on the Mekong, they must undertake a series of bold steps.
A FIERCE debate erupted at a recent meeting between Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand over the US$3.5bil Xayaburi dam Laos is building along the Mekong River, which they all share. The controversy highlights the urgent need for Mekong countries to craft and conform to shared guidelines to both preserve one of the world's greatest rivers as well as develop their economies.
The Mekong River, which flows from China into mainland South-East Asia, provides food, water and transportation to tens of millions of people. But riparian nations are building a string of dams to fuel their economic development which, studies show, could ultimately damage this ecosystem and stoke bilateral tensions. China already has four upstream, while mainland South-East Asian countries plan to build 11 others, including the Xayaburi.
Although the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was founded in 1995 to coordinate sustainable development, thus far, parochial interests have prevented the intergovernmental body from forging consensus. If riparian states and other interested parties are serious about averting a future crisis on the Mekong, they must undertake a series of bold steps.
First, Mekong countries must strengthen the effectiveness of the MRC as an institution.
This process must begin with China and Myanmar becoming full members of the MRC as opposed to just observers. The MRC simply cannot help Mekong countries manage the river if only four out of six of them are fully part of the body.
China in particular needs to change the perception that its upstream location in the Mekong means it can ignore the needs of downstream and less powerful South-East Asian states.
Most critically, the four current members of the MRC must empower the grouping to function as a more authoritative coordinating body. Only a strong MRC can help break the deadlock of competing national interests and ensure that all countries are held to a common standard.
Second, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand should recognise that while they have a sovereign right to develop their economies, they must also ensure that dam projects are backed up by adequate input and research and adhere to obligations they have previously signed to.
For instance, Laos, a landlocked and poor country, may view hydropower as a gateway to development. But since Vientiane already agreed in December 2011 to postpone a decision on the Xayaburi pending further study, starting it now will violate that commitment as well as the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires regional consultation for development projects.
Even if countries decide to go ahead with dams, the process by which decisions are made and they are eventually built needs to be fair and inclusive. Proper research and analysis should be conducted and diverse interest groups must be adequately consulted. Equally important, government officials should have the adequate capacity to conduct these assessments and the necessary impartiality to resist being captured by powerful commercial interests.
Third, other countries must also do their part to help riparian nations chart a sustainable course in the coming years.
MRC donors like Australia or the Asian Development Bank can support the efforts of the MRC by waving the banner of sustainability while also flagging concerns about certain developments and criticising particular countries. The strong statement issued by donors after the recent meeting which raised concerns about the Xayaburi dam and mainstream dams in general was a good example of this, even though it was not accompanied by action against Laos.
But words alone will not suffice. Willing nations should provide assistance to Mekong countries to enhance their expertise and capacity-building so that they can pursue hydropower and development more generally in the right way.
This includes other Asean states, since a stable and prosperous Mekong sub-region is critical to realising an integrated Asean Community by the end of 2015.
Singapore has been a leader in this regard, as evidenced by the Singapore-United States Third Country Training Programme concretised in February 2012 which aims to extend technical assistance and capacity-building to Mekong countries.
The threat to the Mekong is clear, but the commitment of riparian nations to preserve it is not. Only urgent action by these countries as well as outside actors can help ensure that the sub-region becomes an area of economic prosperity rather than a site of an impending crisis. Nothing less than the future of one of the world's greatest rivers is at stake.
> Prashanth Parameswaran is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and a fellow at the Pacific Forum CSIS. He writes about Asian affairs at www.asianist.wordpress.com and you can follow him on Twitter @TheAsianist.