River politics

Andrew Wells-Dang

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Upstream from the Xayaburi Dam, 2012. Photograph: Dave Tacon/Polaris

Water Governance Dynamics in the Mekong Region
David J.H. Blake and Lisa Robins (eds)
Strategic Information and Research Development Centre: 2016

Until several years ago, crossing the Mekong River from Mukdahan, Thailand, to Savannakhet, Laos — or at Neak Loeung, Cambodia, or Can Tho, Vietnam — was a romantic if precarious ferry trip subject to delays, bad weather and persistent local vendors. All of these crossings have since been replaced by sterile, efficient concrete bridges. We no longer look out at the Mekong, but down over a tamed and conquered waterway.

In the dry season, water levels have fallen below their previous marks. No longer mighty, the river is under threat from climate change, deforestation and, not least, a cascade of dams starting in China and extending into Laos and (in the future) possibly Cambodia. For environmentalists and activists around the region, optimism about sustainable water management has been replaced by concern and even despair.

A benchmark for the changing fortunes of the Mekong River was set in 2011. In April of that year, the Lao government announced that regional consultations on the proposed Xayaburi dam had been completed. Although other governments disagreed with this interpretation of the 1995 Mekong agreement, Laos proceeded with construction of the dam and has since begun work on two other mainstream Mekong dams (Don Sahong and Pakbeng).

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