The future is liquid – and in the ebb and flow of Mekong River water lies a problem for Southeast Asia. Laos, in particular, is spawning tensions with its neighbors over its controversial dam projects.
Yellowish brown, the waters of the Mekong wend their way through Laos, from north to south, for nearly 1,900 kilometers. The river is something of the life's blood for Southeast Asia's only landlocked country. The Mekong is a transportation route, its fish are an important source of protein for the population and its waters provide countless people with a livelihood – not just in Laos.
And therein lies the problem. "We are talking about some 60 million who live directly along the river or from what it produces," Jin-Hua Meng, a WWF expert for sustainable water usage, told DW in an interview.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in Asia and three-quarters of the 6.5 million inhabitants live from agriculture with a large portion of them subsistence farmers. At the same time, however, the country is rich – rich in natural resources; rich in water.
Winners and losers of rapid development
Laos has the greatest water potential of any country in the region; an advantage which the Laotian government has long recognized and now begun to exploit. Several dam projects in recent years have been completed to generate electric power. Electricity has even become a key Laotian export, and the government in Vientiane wants to continue development, to make energy a major export, and to turn the country into 'Asia's battery'. The amount of water power Laos would be capable of generating far exceeds its own domestic needs, and larger and more economically advanced neighbors, like Thailand or Vietnam, would be grateful customers.
However, the booming business of electricity also has its losers: first and foremost the environment. Awareness in Laos for the sustainable use of resources is developing haltingly. The local population is repeatedly a victim of profit-oriented dam projects. Entire villages, for example, have been moved to make way for dams.
No coordination with others
Environmentalists have been observing the growing number of dam projects in Laos with concern. Just a few weeks ago, the organization International Rivers, based in Thailand, warned that in Don Sahong, just a few kilometers from the Cambodian border, construction had begun on a huge dam complex along the Mekong – the second such project on the country's main waterway.
"Our team was there a good two weeks ago and saw how construction was proceeding," said Pianporn Deetes, the director for Thailand of International Rivers. According to reports from local villagers, the authorities had already blown up a water fall. "Residents were also told to prepare for resettlement," she said.
Laos is supposedly obliged to inform and seek the approval of three of its other Mekong neighbors when such dam projects are planned as part of a mutually agreed consultation mechanism with the so-called Mekong River Commission, which includes Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. In 1995 the four countries agreed to jointly exploit the economic potential of the river and its resources and manage the projects by mutual agreement.
"Of course, the paper calls for approval for every dam project on the Mekong," confirms Pianporn Deetes, but the accord is just a loose agreement and not a legal document. In the case of the Don Sahong project, at least, there has been no approval from the partner countries. The Laotian government has its own interpretation of the situation and argues that the current building is just preliminary construction which does not require the permission of its neighbors.
Two dams, many protests
According to International Rivers, the dam construction will have severe consequences for humans and animals in that area of the Mekong. "The new dam project blocks the only plaxce along the river where fish can swim upstream during the dry season," says Deetes. For those who depend on fishing that would be a disaster, she said.
Cambodia and Vietnam, further downstream, are also seriously concerned about the possible effects of the dam. After traveling through six countries, the Mekong ends in a huge delta where it spills into the South China Sea. Both countries vehemently protested against the first Laotian dam project along the Mekong. And in Xayaburi, in the north of Laos, the government is planning a dam that will be four times the size of the Don Sahong project, equipped with a 1,260 megawatt power station. Following the protests of its neighbors, Laos decided a few months ago to suspend the controversial project to conduct further environmental tests.
Ambitious plans in Vientiane
But, even so, there is still a great deal of activity going on at the construction site. "According to our information, work on the Xayaburi dam has never stopped," notes Deetes. Construction is even continuing unabated during the monsoon season, a situation confirmed by WWF expert, Meng: "In the case of Xayaburi, Laos is not even claiming that the work going on are preparatory measures." On the contrary, the government, she says, has officially declared that it is going full steam ahead with the project. "Laos takes the stand that it has informed the others about the project; that we have consulted; and that we have heard the concerns from the countries downstream," says Meng. In Vientiane's view, it has adhered to the conditions of the Mekong River Commission agreement.
A few days ago, Vientiane's deputy minister for energy, Viraponh Viravong made comments to this effect on the Arab TV channel Al Jazeera. He confirmed that construction on the Xayaburi dam would officially resume in November. "We are trying to stick to the schedule," he was quoted as saying.
The WWF is concerned about this turn of events. Although the environmental group is not against the construction of dams per se, it sees the key issue as 'where' they are built. "Laos has enough hydroelectric potential along the tributaries of the Mekong. Within just a few years hydroelectric plants could be built and generate power and income," says Jin-Hua Meng. The Mekong, on the other hand, is not the right location for experiments.