BANGKOK — Being landlocked and poor has always placed Laos at a disadvantage to its more powerful neighbors. The only body of water that offers Vientiane an international reach is the Mekong River, which flows through the heartland of Southeast Asia.
Now, that river, which laps the western fringes of the capital Vientiane, has become the staging ground for Laos to flex its diplomatic muscles. The secretive communist party that runs the country is even prepared to stand up to the region’s other, more powerful and wealthier communist-dominated regime—Vietnam.
An April summit of the four riparian countries that share the Mekong—Cambodia and Thailand, in addition to Laos and Vietnam—exposed the tension that has surfaced between these communist twins. Like Vietnam, Cambodia is also at odds with Laos over its determination to push ahead with plans for a new dam where the Mekong snakes through southern Laos, just over a mile from the Laos-Cambodian border.
“Though already being informed by the Lao side that work on the project will be started by the end of this year, both the Vietnamese and Cambodian sides have agreed that Laos should comply with the 1995 MRC [Mekong River Commission] Agreement,” Nguyen Minh Quang, Vietnam’s minister of natural resources and environment, said at the closing press conference of the Second Mekong River Commission Summit, held in Ho Chi Minh City in April. “We [Vietnam and Cambodia] also recommend that Laos only begin work on the project after new rules come into effect.”
This is not the first time that Hanoi has been in such a huff with Laos over plans to build on the Mekong. Before the current project—the 260-megawatt Don Sahong Dam—became a cause for concern, the Vietnamese government expressed disapproval over the much larger Xayaburi dam, a 1,260-megawatt project being built on the river’s mainstream in northern Laos.
In fact, a January meeting of the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) found Laos cornered, with even Thailand expressing reservations about the Don Sahong Dam. Nevertheless, Laos appears determined to forge ahead with the project by skirting around binding MRC agreements, including the one alluded to by the Vietnamese minister, which requires “prior consultation” and regional agreement on dams that could impact the Mekong’s flow.
“At the moment there is no consensus on the Don Sahong Dam, because three countries require the project to be subject to prior consultation since they have raised concerns about its impact,” Surasak Glahan, spokesman for the Vientiane-based MRC, told The Irrawaddy. “Laos says prior consultation is not necessary because the volume of water that will be impacted by the dam will be small.”
Laos has stuck to this view since October, when it formally notified the MRC that it will proceed with the dam. Viraphonh Viravong, Laos’ deputy minister of energy and mines, declared at the time that it would not breach the 1995 agreement because the dam is not being built on the Mekong mainstream, but on one of the 17 channels in the Siphandone stretch, where the water flow through the channel accounts for only five per cent of the river’s flow.
Such a unilateral view ignores the case advanced by Vietnam about the dire consequences its rice bowl—the Mekong Delta—could face if dams are constructed on the mainstream. The flow of sediment down the Mekong into the delta is crucial for the 20 million people who live there. Nearly 90 percent of the rice Vietnam exports is grown in the delta. Loss of sediments from the Mekong exposes this 15,400-square-mile (40,000-square-km) flat, marshy terrain to saltwater erosion from the mouth of the river, which faces the South China Sea.
Cambodia, meanwhile, views the Don Sahong Dam as a threat to its much-needed fish stocks. A barrier on the only channel, the Hou Sahong, that is the chosen route for fish all year would impact migration, feeding and breeding, “creating trans-boundary impacts,” notes the NGO Forum on Cambodia. It is a loss that would affect the diets of Cambodians, given that fish and aquatic resources provide for “76 percent of animal intake, 37 percent of protein intake, 37 percent of iron intake and 28 percent of fats intake of the Cambodian population,” according to a 2013 study by the Cambodian Fisheries Administration, a government agency.
These Cambodians are among some 65 million poor people across all four countries depending on the Mekong for their sustenance. The river’s reputation as the world’s biggest and most productive inland fisheries waterway also makes it a money spinner. And between US$2.2 billion and $3.9 billion worth of fish is harvested from the river each year, accounting for nearly one-fourth of the world’s annual catch.
No wonder, then, that environmentalists are perturbed: Laos’ readiness to sink agreements with its neighbors over a shared international river demonstrates that national interests are still winning out over wider concerns. “This is a test of regional cooperation and it is failing,” Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, a global environmental campaigner, said in an interview. “Laos is setting a very bad precedent about how to ignore the 1995 agreement.”
Activists fear the worst for the nearly 3,100-mile-long (5,000-km-long) river, which begins its journey in the Tibetan plateau, roars through southern China and touches Myanmar before heading south through the Mekong Basin. Laos, after all, has set its sights on building nine dams on the Mekong’s mainstream in its quest to become an exporter of hydropower to neighbors like Thailand.
Vientiane’s ambition to become the “battery of Southeast Asia” has been defended for economic and development reasons: The millions of dollars in foreign exchange it will generate will help raise the living standards of the third of its nearly six million population still mired in poverty. And its defiance on the diplomatic front has been attributed to the growing influence of China, which has already built four mega-dams out of a planned eight with little consideration (and no prior consultations) for downstream countries.
But this go-it-alone approach is coming at the cost of Laos’ “special relationship” with Vietnam, forged after US troops were defeated in the Vietnam War, and cemented by a 1977 treaty of friendship and cooperation.
For nearly three decades, Vietnam was a dominant presence in Laos, leading the way with foreign investment. But as China and Thailand step up their economic presence in the country, the influence of Vientiane’s ideological big brother appears to be waning—with consequences that could be disastrous for Vietnam’s rice exports, and for the region’s main waterway.
This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy’s May 2014 print edition.