What looked like an admittedly temporary reprieve for the swift currents and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong river is now over. In December the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, called again for approval of a potentially devastating dam at Xayaburi in northern Laos to be withheld until more is known about its effect on the lower Mekong. Apart from high up in the gorges of south-western China, the Mekong remains undammed. But now CH. Karnchang, a Thai construction giant contracted to build a $3.8 billion dam at Xayaburi has told the Bangkok Stock Exchange that dam construction officially began on March 15th, and that 5,000 workers have just been hired.
The news has triggered an angry response from riparian neighbours. The December agreement, calling for further scientific study of the environmental impacts, included Laos. Opponents of the dam argue that the Xayaburi dam will cause immense harm to ecosystems and imperil 65m South-East Asians who rely on the Mekong, the world’s biggest inland fishery, for their sustenance. Cambodia’s water-resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, sent a strong protest letter to Laos. He called for an immediate halt to construction until an independent assessment has been completed. Japan has just agreed to fund a study on Mekong dams, under the auspices of the MRC. Vietnam strongly backs Cambodia, and has repeatedly called for no more dams to be built on the Mekong for at least ten years. The Lao government’s failure formally to notify its Mekong partners about the construction, allowing the dam to proceed under the radar, clearly undermines the credibility of the MRC’s consultation processes. (pdf) In truth, though the Mekong Agreement signed in 1995, which gave birth to the commission, requires the four nations to consult and respect neighbours’ concerns, final decisions are left to each sovereign state.
A “Save the Mekong” campaign, chiefly among Thai non-government organisations (NGOs) has been gathering force. The NGOs complain of silence from the commission’s head office, based in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The MRC appears incapable even of sending a monitoring team to the dam site. Perhaps Cambodia will file a complaint against Laos in an international court. More likely, as Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Mekong Conservation Group, suggests, local residents might have no choice but to use sit-ins and other obstructions in order to shut down the Mekong “friendship bridges” between Thailand and Laos, should the MRC fail to compel Laos to suspend the dam construction.
A dam on the Mekong: Opening the floodgates, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43