PHNOM PENH: The previously free-flowing waters of the Mekong River are set to hit another barrier with plans for a new dam.
If built, the dam in the town of Pak Beng in northern Laos would be one of the biggest in Southeast Asia. More than 1,600 hectares of farmland would be flooded and at least 6,700 people would be resettled to make way for the 1,230-megawatt facility, which would produce energy mostly for export to Thailand.
While advocates have said the dam would produce reliable energy for local communities and much-needed revenue for the government, concerns are intensifying in Laos and internationally about the negative effects.
However, whether opponents can make any headway is uncertain as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) - the body tasked with promoting sustainable development along the river - has limited powers. It was created in 1995 as part of the Mekong Agreement between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. But it has no power to stop or regulate any development projects on the Mekong.
Pham Tuan Phan, chief executive of the MRC Secretariat, acknowledged that there is a big gap between what campaigners would like the organisation to do and what it can actually achieve. "It's not a supranational organisation or a regulatory body ... but a regional river basin organisation where the member countries discuss their needs, concerns and challenges in good faith, following a clear set of rules and agreement," he said.
Based on the agreement, member countries are required to hold a Prior Consultation process before beginning any mainstream project. Discussions must be made about any transboundary impact the project could bring to the region before a unanimous consensus is reached on how to proceed with the proposal. However, the agreement is not legally binding and member countries can essentially do whatever they want.
The organisation's limited bite was put into the spotlight when two dams that met with widespread criticism at the planning stage still went ahead - the Xayaburi hydropower project in northern Laos is now 67 per cent complete while further south, the Don Sahong dam is forging ahead.
Both faced strong opposition, not only from residents along the Mekong, but also many conservationists around the world. They fear the dams will destroy the river’s ecology and wipe out hundreds of fish species that feed the region’s economy and populations.
"The MRC agreement is very weak and the MRC agreement doesn't work," said Tek Vannara, an active environmental advocate from the NGO Forum of Cambodia. "We need them to respect the law, the standard. They need to consult with the people."
The commission is fully aware it has not delivered what some had hoped for.
"Of course, nothing is perfect. We are currently taking lessons from (these) two cases and taking steps to improve the process in the future," Phan said.
But there is not much it can do.
Mega projects are spreading across the Mekong, both on its mainstream and tributaries. Seven hydropower dams have been built on the Upper Mekong in China, where it is known as the Lancang River, and 21 more have been planned. In the Lower Mekong Basin - in addition to the two mainstream dams being built - 10 more have been proposed.
If all the dams are built, there are concerns about the impact they will have on the Mekong. There have been calls for the MRC to do more to assess the implications of the developments and intervene if necessary, even if that means extending its remit.
However, Phan said the MRC is meeting its goals, maintaining that the member countries have followed the rules and no extra powers are necessary.
"The member countries have respected the Mekong Agreement for more than two decades in the spirit of Mekong cooperation. No member country has broken the agreement," he said.
Looking back at the Xayaburi and Don Sahong projects, the MRC did follow the procedures stipulated in the 1995 agreement, with a public consultation process.
But some critics have said that the process was flawed and concerns were not taken into consideration. Niwat Roykaew, a resident of Chiang Rai in northern Thailand and leader of the Rak Chiang Khong conservation group, said that the process for the Don Sahong dam was not designed to take into account the perspectives of local communities.
"(The process) is to enable the projects. You consulted local residents and they disagreed with the plan. Still you proceeded to build the dams, claiming you had followed the procedures. It doesn't work. We share the same world and the same land. I think we need to think together," he said.
For example, at the dam sites, residents were not asked if they wanted to be resettled; they were simply asked to move and receive compensation determined by the Communist government.
The shortcomings of the consultation process were acknowledged by the MRC.
"The Xayaburi and Don Sahong were our first two test cases to follow through the prior consultation process, so we might not have been perfect in handling the cases," admitted Phan.
"We are reviewing the two cases and taking lessons out of them. One of the lessons we have is to offer more opportunities for the stakeholders to voice their concerns in a meaningful way."
NEW PLAYER IN MEKONG DIPLOMACY
As doubts continue about the MRC's role in the development of existing projects, questions are also being raised about its future. It is losing its financial support, with member countries and other agencies cutting their funding for the next five years by half - from US$115 million in 2011-2015 to US$53 million for 2016-2020. About half of its employees will also lose their jobs.
"The MRC was never a strong mechanism and it's not an appropriate measure to address these concerns," said Tanja Venisnik, a lawyer and human rights specialist.
As the future role of the MRC continues to come into question, China is at the heart of a new grouping that aims to oversee development along the Mekong.
The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) - a loose pact between the five Mekong countries and China - aims to narrow the gaps and promote development among its members, including in areas such as water management and utilisation.
"China is trying to gain more influence in the region. The Mekong River Commission is losing its strength. It’s becoming weaker and weaker," said Venisnik.
This comes as China promotes its One Belt, One Road strategy, pushing for a greater role on the global stage through connectivity and cooperation with other countries, including those in Southeast Asia.
However, whether the LMC will reflect the views of concerned communities remains an unanswered question. The region's demand for energy is growing, and the Mekong's natural ability to meet that demand may mean that such concerns continue to be a low priority.