SIEM REAP, Cambodia – The prime ministers of the four countries in the downstream Mekong River basin agreed this week to boost collaboration for sustainable development, but turned noticeably quiet about the environmental impact from hydropower dam projects that have increased thanks to Chinese help.
Cambodia’s Hun Sen, Thailand’s Prayut Chan-ocha, Vietnam’s Nguyen Xuan Phuc and Thongloun Sisoulith of Laos attended the Mekong River Commission summit on Thursday in the northwestern province of Siem Reap. They were joined at the third meeting of the quadrennial summit by representatives from upstream countries China and Myanmar as observers.
The four leaders called for enhanced collaboration to achieve sustainable development and equal sharing of water resources in the Siem Reap Declaration adopted at the meeting. But their muted stance regarding hydropower dam construction contrasted starkly with the 2014 declaration from the Ho Chi Minh City summit, which highlighted such concerns.
Hun Sen, who had sounded a note of caution in that previous summit about a dam project in Laos — the first in the lower mainstream basin — did not use the expression “environmental destruction” this time around.
As rapid economic development fuels rising demand for electricity in Southeast Asia, hydropower from the Mekong River offers a promising source of energy. Development had been slow due to strong opposition from local residents concerned about harm to fisheries. Europe and the U.S. have held back funding over environmental considerations. But the tide has shifted as Chinese companies engage in these projects.
Of the 11 dam projects planned in the lower mainstream basin, two are already under construction in Laos with funding support from Thailand and others. Two more projects — one in Cambodia’s Sambor and the other in Pak Beng, Laos — will begin construction soon with help from Chinese funding. A joint venture involving a Chinese company is funding another project, the Lower Sesan 2, in a Cambodian tributary just 25km from the main stream.
China regards Southeast Asia as part of its Belt and Road Initiative, and hydropower projects along the Mekong running through the Indochina Peninsula are pieces of the vision. China strengthens its influence in the basin by offering economic cooperation.
Beijing led the 2015 formation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism involving the four countries plus Myanmar and China. In the first summit of the six nations in 2016, China promised loans and credit lines totaling more than $10 billion to assist with development.
The four-way summit this week affirmed coordination with the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation framework. Even though the Mekong River Commission released alarming findings from an environmental study ahead of the summit, related discussions were limited in the conference. The study predicts that if dam projects currently underway proceed as planned, sediment load reaching the Mekong Delta will be depleted by 97% by 2040 while fish stock decrease by up to 40%.
Vietnam, which has a territorial conflict with China in the South China Sea, was the only country that noted the study. The declaration mentioned the study only to say its key findings should be considered when national plans and projects are set in the future.
By Yukako Ono
Nikkei Asian Review