Lowy Institute

The possibility, indeed probability, that Laos will build its controversial 32m-high dam at Don Sahong on the Mekong River just above the Lao-Cambodia border has strengthened following the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Council meeting in Bangkok on 26-27 June. This is despite an apparent concession by the Lao delegation, with Vice-Minister for Energy and Mines Viraphonh Viravong agreeing to six months of 'consultation' with the other MRC members (Cambodia, Thailand and Laos) over the dam's construction.

In making this concession, Laos has shown some readiness to acknowledge criticism of the planned dam, which has come principally from Cambodia and Vietnam (Thailand has been much less forceful). There will now be a formal exchange of ideas and plans relating to the proposed dam.

But as MRC chief Hans Guttman said after the meeting, 'Under the MRC's regulations there is no need to suspend or stop work on the project during the (consulation) process.'

The Lao Government, and Viraphonh Viravong in particular, has shown itself adept at gaming the rules and regulations stemming from the 1995 Mekong River Agreement. In the case of the Xayaburi dam, which has now advanced to actual construction, Laos blindsided fellow MRC members by simply ignoring until the last moment the requirement for consultation, and then announcing that the dam was under construction.

With Don Sahong, the Lao Government adopted another approach, claiming the dam was being built on a 'tributary' of the Mekong rather than the mainstream and that, under the agreement, this meant it only had to give a notification of its intentions. At the very least this was a terminological sleight of hand. The site of the planned dam at Don Sahong is on one of the many channels into which the Mekong splits when it reaches the region of the Khone Falls (pictured). Until last year it had never been suggested that the dam site on the Hou Sahong Channel was other than part of the river's mainstream.

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So the Lao concession in Bangkok seems very much like a fig leaf for the Government's ultimate intention to build the dam; work has already begun on preliminary construction such as housing and bridges. The plan was always to begin work on the Hou Sahong Channel itself in December 2014, so consulting for six months would only delay those plans for a month.

The Lao Government and the Malaysian firm contracted to build the dam have repeatedly argued that means will be found to mitigate the effect of blocking the Hou Sahong Channel, which is the only route through which large numbers of fish are able to migrate throughout the year. The Government and builders claim this will be possible by improving the morphology of other channels.

The science bearing on this issue appears beyond dispute: only Hou Sahong offers year-round migration. For this channel to be blocked threatens major disruption of fish stocks both below and above the Khone Falls. There is an abundance of scientific literature on the issue, with this World Fish Center summary the most easily available. A more recent article in Nature expands on the damage likely to flow from construction of a dam at Don Sahong.

The Lao Government understandably wants to improve its foreign exchange earnings by embracing hydropower generation, which is why Xayaburi is being built and why it wants to build Don Sahong. But the costs, including to Laos itself in terms of lost fish stocks, is high. Even if there is an argument to be made that the dam at Xayaburi will have a relatively limited effect on the overall fish catch, this is not the case for Don Sahong.

Photo by Flickr user Global Water Forum.

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The recent publicity given to Asian antiquities held by the Australian National Gallery and the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which are alleged to have been stolen from India, are only a small part of a much wider issue that has received international attention recently.

Some major museums in the US have now returned or agreed to return objects identified as having been stolen from Cambodia, while others are still reluctant to do so. A partial summary of the current situation is provided on the Chasing Aphrodite website, which was actively involved in the Australian cases.

Against this background, a recently posted article from the British Journal of Criminology provides a fascinating and disturbing account of how antiquity theft from Cambodia has operated over the past several decades.

The article makes clear the extent to which Cambodia's unsettled history since the overthrow of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 has aided the criminal groups which have exploited both the political circumstances of the country and the often desperate poverty of villagers living near important cultural sites. At the same time, the readiness of foreign collectors to disregard issues of provenance has meant that there has been a ready market for stolen antiquities, particularly in Bangkok.

Photo by Flickr user Tim Moffatt.

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In a Bloomberg story published yesterday, the chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Hans Guttman, is quoted as saying that 'there is still an opportunity for coming to an agreement' over issues connected to mitigating the impact on fisheries of the projected Don Sahong dam in southern Laos. Such an agreement, he appears to indicate, might be reached when the four MRC countries — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — meet in Thailand later this month.

As I reported in March (Mekong: Laos confirms Don Sahong dam plans), Laos has previously indicated that it will begin construction of the dam in December.

There is little doubt about the opposition of Cambodia and Vietnam to the construction of Don Sahong; Thailand has been less vocal officially despite vigorous criticism from domestic NGOs. But it is difficult not to think that the MRC chief executive is putting the best possible interpretation on statements made by Lao government representatives, in particular the vice minister for energy, Viravong Viraphonh. Responding the queries put to him by Bloomberg, the minister said 'Laos remains committed to exporting hydropower and becoming the battery of Southeast Asia' and, most importantly in terms of likely future developments, that 'We are confident that the proposed project will cause no significant impact to the full mainstream flow of the Mekong, nor will it affect fish migration or sediment passage to any degree that would harm downstream communities.' It's worth noting that Viravong Viraphonh has been at the heart of Laos' Mekong policy for several years  and played a key part in bringing the Xayaburi dam to the construction phase.

Is any of this deserving of the suggestion that the river could become 'another South China Sea'? That is, a dispute which not only involves the countries along its course (which includes China) but also the US? This is a view recorded in the Bloomberg article, drawing on a CSIS paper published in April.

For the moment, this seems to be over-egging an already rich pudding, one with sufficient ingredients for tense relations along the river's length. Whatever the judgment, it would seem more than likely that Laos will continue with its Don Sahong plans and that the threat to fish stocks will become a real and present issue.

Photo by Flickr user Hector Garcia.

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The military coup led by General Prayuth has shown that it has no time for half measures, with the nation's constitution suspended (apart for the chapter relating to the monarchy), the senate dismissed and an uncertain number of leading political figures, activists, journalists and academics called into detention. The media is under tight control and there are reports today of books critical of the Thai political system being culled from the shelves of bookshops.

Against this background, two thoughtful posts from New Mandala are worthy of consideration, the first by Thai constitutional lawyer Kemthong Tonsakulrungruang, and the second by the ANU's Andrew Walker, one of Australia's best-informed and long-time observers of Thailand.

In the weeks to come, one particular issue will be worthy of attention: the redrafting of Thailand's constitution. Many commentators have argued that the 1997 constitution, whatever its shortcomings, was the fairest ever embraced in modern Thailand. So the question is, what will be the character of the new constitution? Here a post-coup satirical opinion piece in the Bangkok Post is worthy of attention, when it suggests that there could be grossly unfair distribution of electoral boundaries under a military-inspired new constitution, with Chiang Mai, a centre of Red Shirt support dramatically disadvantaged by comparison with Surat Thani, a sourthern bastion of the Yellow Shirts.

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A soldier in position at Bangkok's Democracy monument yesterday. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.)

The quote that heads this post is from a hard-hitting and critical editorial in today's Bangkok Post, which really says it all at the broad level of analysis.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha was a leading figure in the 2006 coup that ousted the Thaksin Government, yet that coup and the events that followed showed conclusively that the Thai military is neither equipped to run the country nor possessed of particular wisdom in seeking to install a government that will attract wide popular support.

So why has the military acted? Considered in the most generous light, it is possible to believe that the coup was mounted to prevent a continuation of sporadic violence between the contending political groups which could have widened into a more serious confrontation, taking many lives. But the military's actions are just as likely to provoke greater violence, as the Red Shirts, who will now more than ever feel disenfranchised, consider whether peaceful demonstrations can ever serve their interests.

The very concept of democratic government is under attack in Thailand as the actions of the military appear to give support to the People's Democratic Reform Committee led by Suthep Thaugsubahn.

Just as the Duke of Wellington in the nineteenth century was opposed to the developments of railways since they would allow the common people to travel, Suthep and his supporters really do not believe that the Red Shirts have the same right to vote and to determine who governs the country as do the supporters of what Duncan McCargo has called the 'network monarchy'.

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Making this attitude all the more worrying is the fact that Thai society has changed dramatically over the past three decades, with the population in the rural regions better educated and more determined to play a role in the political process. And while it is true that the Red Shirts gain their greatest support from these rural regions, it is wrong to describe them as simply discontented peasants. There are Red Shirt supporters in the outer regions of Bangkok as well as in the industrialised areas to the east and southeast of the capital who cannot be classified as rural peasants. Even academic opinion is divided; it would be wrong to think that it is all on the side of the middle-class opponents of the Red Shirt movement.

Lying behind recent developments is concern for the future of the monarchy, given the advanced age of the king. Discussion in Thailand is handicapped by the draconian lese-majeste law, but it is an unsettling issue, as supporters of old ways and old values fear that a future Red Shirt government might devalue an institution that has played an important part in Thailand's recent history.

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The Thai Army in Bangkok today. (REUTERS/Damir Sagolj.)

The Thai military announced this morning that it was intervening to impose martial law throughout the country but insisting that its actions did not represent a coup. The statement, signed by the army chief, General Prayuth Chan-Ocha, referred to a 1914 law that, it said, gave the military the right to intervene during times of crisis.

In a prescient opinion piece published just hours before the army's announcement, the Post's contributing editor, Atiya Achakulwisut, argued that martial law was likely to be imposed in the current circumstances, with no progress towards settlement of Thailand's long-running political crisis.

Most interestingly, she argued that there were some attractions in a military intervention for both sides of the political confrontation. For the People's Democratic Reform Committee, led by Suthep Thaugsuban, martial law could be seen as the first step towards the full-scale military involvement that would benefit their ultimate aim of dismissing the interim government. Conversely, the Red Shirts, despite being likely to oppose the martial law decision, could see the army's actions as likely to reinforce the feelings of their supporters that they are facing continuing opposition from elite-linked groups in the capital.

The opinion piece concludes, surely accurately, that the army's imposition of martial law will not solve Thailand's current problems.

With detailed reactions from the main parties involved in the crisis still some time away, all that can usefully be said at the moment is that the army's decision brings a new complication to an already difficult situation. It will not, in itself, result in an early or easy solution to a fundamental and even existential problem in the nature of Thailand's governance.

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Tent city in Lumpini Park, Bangkok. (Flickr/Earthworm.)

Bangkok's streets were quiet yesterday following the Constitutional Court's widely expected dismissal of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra for an abuse of power. In 2011 she appointed a figure linked to her family as secretary-general of the National Security Council.

From an outside observer's point of view, the decision appears to reinforce the view that the court's sympathies lie with those who oppose the Red Shirt movement generally and the Shinawatra family in particular. As Thomas Fuller commented in the New York Times, the decision 'highlights (the court's) overtly political role'.

But the court's ruling, which also included the dismissal of nine other members of Yingluck's government, still leaves other cabinet members in place to form a continuing caretaker government in the lead-up to fresh elections due in July.

Reactions to Yingluck's dismissal have been predictable. Leader of the anti-Yingluck protest moevement Suthep Thaugsuban claims the court's decision represents the final blow against her Pheu Thai party, but then he has been making similar claims for some months. Whether he can translate his claims into actions beyond yet another protest march remains uncertain and there seemed to be little activity among his supporters in the camp they have established in Lumpini Park when I visited yesterday afternoon.

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Pheu Thai representatives have, of course, condemned the decision and called for a Red Shirt demonstration tomorrow. Large numbers of Red Shirt suppporters are assembled on the edges of Bangkok.

Former Democrat Party prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has over the last week offered suggestions for some form of compromise, but these have effectively called for a solution that would ignore the reality of Pheu Thai's continuing record of winning elections decisively.

The limited number of Thai observers I have been able to speak to during my short visit to Bangkok have been cautiously optimisitic that violence can be avoided, given the unhappy memories of the more than ninety deaths that occurred in 2010. Views from legal academics seem divided, with some condemning the court's decision as a judicial coup while others hail it as a wise decision, since it leaves a rump caretaker government in place.

Unsurprisingly, there has been speculation about possible action by the army, which so far has kept to the barracks despite some expectations that it would step in to resolve the stalemate. Every indication is that the army looks back on its coup in 2006 with some misgivings, as it found it could not control events after it had stepped into the political arena. Above all, there is no indication that long-retired general and privy counsellor Prem Tinsulanonda is ready to play the puppet-master role that he did on that occasion. If there was a descent into widespread violence this would without question change the equation for the army, but that point has not yet been reached.

To date, with only limited violence having occurred in the course of the stalemate, the economy has not suffered greatly, though tourist numbers are down and there are increasing calls from the private sector for an end to the political standoff.

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As previewed last Friday, the Second Mekong Summit, held in Ho Chi Minh City on 5 April, concluded with a Declaration that did not directly address the contentious issue of the two dams Laos is constructing on the Mekong River at Xayaburi and Don Sahong (Xayaburi has been reported by the Lao Government to be 30% completed, while Don Sahong is set to go into full construction at the end of this year).

It's true that the Declaration refers to the need for 'strengthened cooperation for the sustainable development of the Mekong Basin', while claiming there has been 'expanded implementation of the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement...to support sound decision-making on proposed water resources development projects in the Mekong River Basin'. But these motherhood statements fly in the face of the manner in which the Lao Government has been pursuing its dam strategies.

Before the summit took place, the Cambodian Water Resources Minister, Lim Keanhor said 'that Cambodia would raise the construction of the Lao Don Sahong dam during the summit'. And at a press conference after the summit the Vietnamese Minister of Natural Resources and Environment, Nguyen Minh Quang, said Laos should consult with other MRC members before taking further action at Don Sahong.

But the most direct comments on the future of the Lao dams have come from prominent NGOs and not from governments, with International Rivers calling for the immediate cessation to work on Don Sahong and Xayaburi, and WWF claiming that 'development partners' at the meetings in Ho Chi Minh City had called for re-evalutation not just of the Lao dams but also of Cambodian plans to build the Se San 2 dam.

So the question is now quite straightforward: will Laos continue to simply ignore the calls for it to abandon Xayaburi and Don Sahong? All evidence suggests it will, particularly in the case of Xayaburi, where construction is already so far advanced. Halting work at Don Sahong would be less of a back-down, but the Lao Government has been adamant in stating its intentions to proceed.

If, in the face of criticism from its MRC partners, Laos simply disregards the calls for it to stop construction of the dams, the worth of the 1995 Mekong Agreement will be dealt a major, even fatal blow, at least so far as its having any role to play in relation to the control of dam-building on the Mekong. Indeed, this point may have already been reached.

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As the National Assembly resumed sittings in Phnom Penh this week, with only members of the CPP government in attendance because of the continuing boycott by elected members of Sam Rainsy's CNRP, there have been suggestions that a compromise may finally be in sight that would end the CNRP boycott of the parliament.

At various times since the elections in July of last year there has been talk that compromise is in sight, but on each occasion the prospect of an end to the CNRP boycott has foundered on the CPP's refusal to entertain a review of the 2013 election results. There have been hints that the CPP government might be prepared to review the manner in which the National Election Committee functions in the future, but no signs of its readiness to review its past actions, which included validating last year's poll.

Without being present on the ground, it is difficult to evaluate the state of public opinion in Cambodia, but there are grounds for accepting the judgments made by President of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights Ou Virak that the CPP has not grasped the need to bring public opinion with it in the changed circumstances following last year's surprise showing by the CNRP.

But if we are to accept this judgment, it is also worth taking note of Ou Virak's other judgment, that 'the challenge for the CNRP will be to prove to the Cambodian people that it constitutes a credible alternative'.

Mobilising protest marches is one thing. Showing that it has policies that can be realistically implemented, particularly in economic areas, is another. And no matter how much Sam Rainsy denies that his denunciations of supposed Vietnamese perfidy are not racist in character, this aspect of his rhetoric is a continuing cause for concern about the sort of leader he would be if he ever comes to power.

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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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The Lao Government confirmed on Wednesday its intention to go ahead with construction of the controversial Don Sahong dam, commencing in December. Lao government ministers said that all of their actions in doing so would be presented in a transparent fashion.

As I reported in The Interpreter on 22 January (Mekong states speak out on the Don Sahong dam), Cambodia and Vietnam had made clear their opposition to the dam and asked that the Lao decision be referred to the Mekong River Commission's (MRC) ministerial council. It does not appear that this has been done. If it has, there is no indication that the council has issued a statement of its views in relation to Don Sahong. And in any event, Laos is clearly going to proceed with the dam no matter what the council says.

This latest announcement suggests a pattern of behaviour by Lao authorities. Just as was the case with the Xayaburi dam (pictured), the Lao Government is prepared to go ahead with its plans for dam construction regardless of criticism from other MRC members. In doing so they not only show disregard for the interests of other members and the likely effects of dams on fish stocks and the flow of sediment, they also further diminish whatever remaining authority the MRC has as a body regulating dams on the Mekong.

For so long as the only country building dams on the Mekong was China (not an MRC member), it was possible to hold the view that the MRC had the potential, if not the actual black-letter-law authority, to act as an arbiter in relation to the dam-building ambitions of its members. This has now been shown to be nothing more than wishful thinking.

Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

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Throughout the post-election stand-off that has seen Sam Rainsy's CNRP party members refusing to take their seats, there have been several occasions when it looked as though talks between the ruling CPP and the CNRP might take place, but to date nothing has come of these apparently promising but ultimately unsuccessful efforts. This is despite the unusual intervention of the king, Norodom Sihanomi, who called on opposition members to take their seats in the parliament as long ago as September last year.

The most recent developments involving an agreement between the two opposing parties to hold talks next week do not address the central demands of the CNRP and won't 'break the deadlock', as Elliot Brennan suggested yesterday. Rather, as is clear from a report in the Cambodia Daily on 26 February, what will be discussed next week is future electoral reform.

The meeting will not discuss the key issue dividing the two parties, which is the CNRP claim of irregularities in last year's elections. So far as the CPP is concerned, that issue is not debatable. Nor is there evidence of the CPP's readiness to accede to other CNRP demands, not least the right to assume the presidency of the national assembly.

Photo by Flickr user Luc Forsyth.

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There is no doubt that Singapore's very particular 'Peranakan Culture', as presented in Yana's observations on Marginal Revolution and highlighted on The Interpreter yesterday, has played a part in the island republic's remarkable success.

But as someone who first visited the city in 1959, has been a regular visitor ever since, and was a resident for three and half years in the late seventies, I think the explanation is both more complex and less easy to pin down to a single key factor we might summarise as 'Adam Smith in overseas Chinese guise'.

Remarkable leadership is certainly part of the answer, but that leadership has involved more than Lee Kuan Yew, vitally important as his contribution was. Far too little attention is given by outside observers to others in the PAP leadership team in the early years of Singapore's independence, a team that included Goh Keng Swee and many others whose names are now forgotten outside Singapore. And at the very least, the younger generation of politicians who followed have been dedicated and capable, even if the challenges they have faced have not, perhaps, been so great.

Commentary on Singapore often fails to recognise the extent to  which it has re-invented itself over the years.

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Inheriting a city which could accurately be called a tropical slum (Barrington Kaye's Upper Nankin Street tells the story), independent Singapore has steadily moved up the production value chain. I well remember when German camera maker Rollei opened in Singapore to great fanfare in the seventies, but of course such forms of manufacturing have long since gone. As early as the eighties Goh Keng Swee was talking about the opportunities to develop genetic engineering.

Once it was unwise for the young to arrive in Singapore with over-long hair. If one wants to look at social change then it's worth noting that gay bars are now a feature of the city (though it says something about local mores that Bugis Street [pictured] today is a recreation of the original).

Having lived elsewhere in Southeast Asia for long periods I would note one, to my mind, fundamentally important point contributing to Singapore's success that is not given sufficient weight by casual observers: the lack of corruption. This is a vital and remarkable fact of commercial and financial life that surely warrants the correct use of the term 'unique'.

Singapore may not be perfect — is not perfect — and I find its attachment to capital punishment distasteful. But it has been a  remarkable success story, if perhaps, as Yana quotes one youth as saying, 'too boring'. Yet even if this is so (and I'm not sure all my Singaporean friends would agree) its very existence, given the obstacles its leadership has had to overcome since 1965, has to be judged a notable achievement.

Photo by Flickr user YL Tan.

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The final sentence in last weekend's Financial Times report on developments in Thailand caught my eye when it referred to a Red Shirt supporter in Chiang Rai who is 'an accountant'. It was not a surprise to me that a 'professional' should be noted as a pro-government Red Shirt. After all, I drew attention to the mistaken tendency to label all Red Shirts as being drawn from the ranks of the 'poor' in a 2011 Interpreter post.

Rather, the FT report emphasised that there has been too little attention given in recent reporting about Thailand to the social diversity of the Red Shirts' support beyond their undoubted strongholds in the north and northeast of the country.

A 2007 electoral results map prepared by the highly respected historian and political commentator on Thai issues, Chris Baker, and republished recently in New Mandala, makes this point. While the map shows solid support for the Democrats (the political party linked to the Suthep Thaugsuban-led Yellow Shirt protest activities on Bangkok's streets) in the south, it is clear that Red Shirt supporters, then grouped as the People Power party, registered strong support in areas on the periphery of the capital and in provinces close to it.

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There is little reason to think that this support has changed since 2007, as a recent article in New Sentinel makes clear. In the judgment of the anonymous author, one-third of Bangkok's electoral seats were held by Red Shirt supporters while the ruling Pheu Thai party was also supported in the newly industrialised regions east of the capital on the Gulf of Thailand.

The same article draws attention to the strength of feeling in the north and northeast associated with the previous Lanna kingdom, which was only fully integrated into Bangkok-ruled Thailand in the nineteenth century, suggesting this plays a part in contemporary politics.

As an interested observer rather than a specialist on Thai politics, I am hesitant to make too much of this point. But as a regular visitor to northern Thailand I have been struck by what might be called 'local nationalism' in cities such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, with much emphasis placed on the glories of the period before Lanna fell under the control of Bangkok.

Photo by Flickr user Ratchaprasong.

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Although widely condemned by academic specialists, environmentalists and civil society groups, the Lao Government plans to proceed with construction of the Don Sahong dam. The proposed dam, discussed in an Interpreter post in November, appeared to be largely escaping official criticism from the other members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC): Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.

It was notable that representatives of the Cambodian National Mekong Committee were not repeating their earlier (2009) criticisms of this dam which, if constructed, would have a major impact on the fish stocks that are so important for the Cambodian population's diet. It is estimated that fish from the Mekong and its tributaries account for 80% of the Cambodian population's annual animal protein intake.

However, at a meeting of the MRC held in Vientiane on 16 January, the representatives of Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam made clear their concerns about Don Sahong and their wish to see the proposal to construct the dam referred the the MRC Council for ministerial consideration. 

Multiple issues are involved in this development. Of first importance is the likely environmental impact of the proposed dam, since it will be located on the one channel through which migratory fish can pass through the Khone Falls region throughout the year. This is an issue that has been widely discussed and on which there is substantial agreement on the basis that there is no way to mitigate the barrier to fish migration that constructing the dam would involve. This has importance for fish catches both above and below the Khone Falls.

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Linked to this is the debate as to whether or not the Don Sahong is being built on the mainstream of the Mekong. The Lao government and representatives speaking for the Malaysian firm contracted to build the dam argue that the dam's site is not on the river's mainstream and that alternative channels can be found for fish migration. This may appear to be an 'angels on the head of a pin' issue, but it does have relevance under the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under that agreement member states are required to submit dam proposals to the Ministerial Council if the intention is to build on the mainstream of the river. Dams on tributaries are only subject to the requirement that notification should be given of their construction. Don Sahong has always been assumed to be a mainstream dam and the fact that Laos is now arguing the alternative case seems to have little validity. To state, as the Lao representatives now do, that because the amount of water that flows past the Don Sahong site is only 15% of the total flow over the Khone Falls smacks of casuistry. In any case, the Lao government is holding firm to its view

Depressingly for those, including the present writer, who hold concerns about developments that will seriously diminish fish stocks in the river, it seems all too likely that referral of the Don Sahong dam to the MRC Ministerial Council will not, in the long run, prevent the dam being built.

Under the terms of the 1995 Mekong Agreement,  the MRC cannot prevent member parties from buildings dams on the mainstream of the river if they are really determined to do so. Laos has already made this fact clear with its decision taken in 2012 to proceed with the construction of a dam at Xayaburi against the wishes of Cambodia and Vietnam. Placed against the relatively small hydroelectric generating capacity of the proposed dam (240 MW), the ultimate costs in the Lower Mekong Basin of finding alternatives to wild fish are substantial, as this recent academic survey has shown

Just as was the case with the Xayaburi dam, the prospect that Don Sahong will indeed be built raises concerns that a domino effect will take place and lead to other dams being built on the mainstream of the Mekong, most probably in Laos. Should this 'race to the bottom' take place the ultimate costs to food security would be serious indeed. 

 Photo by Flickr user International Rivers.

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