The Pandora's Box of Mekong Dams

Ame Trandem

When 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's mainstream.

As one of the first of the Mekong mainstream dams that could be unleashed from Pandora’s Box, the decision on whether or not to proceed with the Xayaburi Dam in Northern Laos is one of the most pressing challenges facing the Governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. This dam, along with warnings of future environmental catastrophe in the form of a Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) report, will be two of the agenda items discussed at this week’s Mekong River Commission’s 17th Council meeting being held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. As protocol under the 1995 Mekong Agreement requires the four member countries to notify, consult, and then make a joint decision on any mainstream development project, the governance body of the MRC, the Council, will also take note of the current consultation process underway in three of the four countries.

With little expressed commitment to consultation and transparency and a regional decision expected to be made as early as April 2011, the Save the Mekong coalition has released a new statement on January 25th, urging Council members to halt the Xayaburi Dam and commit to protecting the Mekong River before its too late. The letter highlights concerns within the Mekong Region that an informed decision can not be made under present circumstances given the failure of the MRC to ensure adequate consideration of the SEA report’s recommendation that decisions regarding mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi Dam, be deferred for a period of ten years due to the dams’ massive risks and the significant scientific uncertainties that exist. The research undertaken to date, including the SEA report, warrants concern given the grave economic, social and ecological threats, both domestic and transboundary, that the Mekong dams are expected to cause on the river’s rich ecosystem. These impacts in turn would have enormous risks and costs to the livelihoods and food security of millions of riverside people in the region.

Given these concerns within the region, along with the fact that the MRC has failed to uphold international standards of public accountability and transparency, and ensure that the opinions of Mekong riparian communities are central to any decision taken, the Save the Mekong coalition has urged the Council to:

  • Halt the current PNPCA decision-making process on the Xayaburi Dam, as recommended by the SEA report to defer decision-making for 10 years, and commit to evaluating all options for meeting the Mekong Region’s water and energy needs through a credible and objective public process. Urgent further research on the opportunities for investment in sustainable alternative energy technologies and improved energy efficiency measures should feed into this process.
  • Endorse the SEA report’s findings and commit the MRC and respective governments to fully disclose existing information concerning each mainstream dam project.
  • Commit to ensure that any future public hearings, including on the Xayaburi Dam, be designed and directed from the outset in a participatory manner thus ensuring that the opinion of the people who would be affected by any proposed infrastructure project be heard and accounted for.
  • Affirm a commitment towards protecting the Mekong River’s rich environmental and economic productivity, and ensuring that the Mekong River remains healthy and free-flowing for the livelihoods of present and future generations.

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.