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Hans Guttman



In the Mekong River Subregion, dam building challenges the way of life of the river people.

China’s Xiaowan Dam in China is one of the first dams in place to harness
he Mekong.
The Mekong is the world’s 12th largest river and winds its way from China through
Southeast Asia.

The Mekong River has risen on the international agenda recently. Press reports describe an increased U.S. interest in the area seen previously as a sphere of Chinese influence. The issue of dams and other development agendas are receiving much publicity. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) are seen as important players in the effort to influence development of natural resources in the region. Moreover, in the recent meeting of the UN General Assembly, the Millenium Development Goals (MDG) were reaffirmed, and fighting poverty is highest on that agenda.

The Mekong River is one of the largest rivers in the world and the greatest one in Southeast Asia. Comparatively, it is relatively “untouched” by water resources development, partly due to the instability of the region over the last 50 years. Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar are among the poorest and most corrupt countries in the world and share the Mekong together with China (only upstream), Thailand and Vietnam. The economic and political differences among the countries sharing the river could hardly be more contrasted, despite Asean attempts to show how all its members have common goals and aims.

>>While I wholeheartedly agree with the claim of Mr. Viraphone Viravong, Director General of Electricity de Lao (EdL), that Laos should not accept being poor and should do whatever it can to develop its resources to benefit its people and the country, I question the current approach. <<

An article in (Asean Analysis - September 27 - Mekong River battleground) described the case for unabated development of the river which was made under the pretext of the need for energy to support development in some of the poorest countries in the world. However, one needs to examine this premise from the perspective of the kind of development that is desired.

It is clear that a pristine untouched Mekong River is not an option when there are so many resource development potentials and such great need for economic and social development. I mention social since this dimension is often subsumed under the economic argument.

While I wholeheartedly agree with the claim of Mr. Viraphone Viravong, Director General of Electricity de Lao (EdL), that Laos should not accept being poor and should do whatever it can to develop its resources to benefit its people and the country, I question the current approach. A big dam planned in Sayabouli province, in north-central Laos, will generate electricity which can be sold to Thailand and generate a good income for the investment company and the Lao government. It will also provide electricity to industry and households attached to the grid.

At the same time it will cause a lot of environmental and social destruction: resettlement of villages, change in water flow and the aquatic environment, stopping fish migration, and a lot of other associated impacts. To some extent this can be mitigated and compensated for, but the track record in Laos and the region is not very impressive on this point. More importantly, where do the benefits accrue? Will the money generated be spent on those affected and primarily on development initiatives benefitting the poor? The poorest people in Laos and Cambodia are not connected to the electricity grid and would not benefit from an increased electricity supply.

All countries in the Mekong region have poverty alleviation as a central objective in their national development strategies. The MRC’s mission is “to promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being,” which directly points to equity in development. Large hydro power development usually does the opposite, by concentrating the benefits to the power producer and distributing the negative impacts to the people relocated by the dam and downstream of it.

Although the Sayabouli dam is still on the drawing board and may take a long time before it becomes reality, a small dam on the border between Laos and Cambodia,at Don Sahong, is almost ready to start construction. Although it is a very small dam across part of the Mekong at the Khone falls, it is predicted to have a devastating impact on the fisheries and dolphin population in the Mekong River since it is going to block a major fish migrating route and is just upstream of one of the few remaining areas of Mekong River dolphins.  

Considering that H.E. Mr. Bouasone Bouphavanh, the Prime Minister of Laos, said in his speech at the First MRC Summit earlier this year that “it is imperative for us to preserve and protect the healthy ecosystem of the Mekong River Basin aimed at ensuring the benefit of the people in the region from the utilization and sustainable development of the Mekong River Basin,” and the fact that Lao government pushes ahead with this small but potentially very damaging project seems contradictory to say the least.

While the Mekong River region needs further and rapid development, it is time for the Asean countries to align their actions and support to be more in line with their stated goals and policies. Development in itself is not a good goal _ it should be targeted to provide benefits to those who need it most, and negative impacts should be minimized, even if it cuts into the financial profits. Balanced and sustainable development is the best tool to prepare for the future. Spreading the wealth increases the market for businesses and provides a resilient and productive economy. It is in all our interest that the natural wealth provided to the people in the region is used in a sensible and sustainable way to provide the basis for the current and future generations in the most equitable way practically possible.

Yes, it is true that Thailand is looking into alternatives and has some good incentives for solar power (photovoltaic), but overall they are eyeing nuclear power without really having clear and secure access to fuel or storage. In addition, a senior EGAT official recently derided the suggestion of significant wind and solar power with the explanation that conventional sources (coal, gas and lignite) cost only THB 2 per unit while solar was more than THB 10, and thus not a feasible alternative.

In any case, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and probably Philippines are not really looking to stimulate alternatives in a significant way. This is, in my view, a bit shortsighted, as the move in the countries they are looking toward for development (including China) are making significant efforts in trying to change their energy security mix. From that perspective, what premium is there for indigenous sources which are not affected by international politics and for decentralised systems which cannot easily be interrupted by accidents or sabotage?

Indeed, this coming year may be a “year of truth” for the Mekong as Asean countries seek more power to fuel economic development. Let’s hope this can be done in a way that provides a basis for the future and does not erode the economic basis for future generations.


Hans Guttman was born in Sweden but has been working in Southeast Asia for the last 20 years. His background is in aquatic resources and rural development with a focus on sustainability. He is interested in providing inroads for the private sector in rural development. He is currently coordinating partners in the Wetlands Alliance in the Lower Mekong countries, promoting poverty reduction through capacity development.


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