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.