The Mekong River's Pandora's box

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Though Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River.

They have also received Zeus' warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report that warns of grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), for the proposed Xayaboury dam located in the eponymous mountainous province in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report's recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, it is perhaps not surprising that the Xayaboury dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leapfrogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River's mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river's resources.

It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaboury, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard.

While the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaboury dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous roadmap for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project's documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River's mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand's Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaboury dam.

If built, the Xayaboury dam will displace over 2,100 people, at least 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests.

The dam would also block a critical fish migration route - including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia's Tonle Sap lake - and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora's box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora's lesson before it is too late?

The decision lies in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

On first inspection it may appear that Thailand is a key decision-maker, as it plans to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaboury dam's electricity. In addition, the project's lead developer is Thailand's second largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, and four major Thai banks are considering financing the project.

However, as the Mekong River is a shared resource between all four lower Mekong countries, and joint decision-making over its sustainable and equitable sharing is embodied in the 1995 "Mekong Agreement" that mandates the MRC, in fact it is decision-makers from all four Mekong countries that will formulate the final decision on whether the project is approved or not.

As Vietnam contemplates this crucial decision, serious consideration must be given to the trans-boundary impacts the Mekong Delta may suffer as a result of the development of the Xayaboury and ten other proposed dams on the Mekong River's mainstream.

The Mekong River is an integrated ecosystem and upstream development can have unintended - but severe - downstream consequences.

By altering the delta's important life-cycle of water, silt and nutrients, the mainstream dams could have far-reaching implications for the delta's rice production, fisheries, and agriculture, with implications for the local and national economy.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River's rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region's decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow.

It is yet not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.

By Ame Trandem
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.

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