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Mekong lessons: Reflecting on October trip to Southeast Asia

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I’ve just returned from my first business trip to Southeast Asia with the Stimson Center’s “Team Mekong.”  Below are a few lessons learned and brief observations from our visits in Bangkok, Kunming, Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Saigon.

Good ideas gain currency

Before I joined the Stimson team in June, I must confess that my outlook on the future of the Mekong region was not filled with optimism. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it is to join a team that is developing pragmatic and innovative solutions to some of the region’s toughest issues. Moreover, it’s extremely satisfying to watch the deployment of an idea gain momentum among decision makers and begin to take on a life of its own. Simply put, ideas work. At public forums in Bangkok, Kunming and Hanoi and in meetings with regional government officials Stimson’s “Team Mekong” launched a more refined version of the concept of the need for a “New Narrative” on Mekong hydropower development first mooted by my colleagues, SEA Program Director Rich Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby this March. The New Narrative challenges the current narrative that the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong’s main stem is a prevailing ‘domino theory’ of inevitability based on an emerging body of evidence. Stimson’s most recent report and its main argument can be found here, but it was encouraging to hear the idea confirmed when well informed hydropower experts placed their bets on no more than five dams, all of them above Vientiane excepting Don Sahong.

So if the Lao PDR government is banking on income generated from the construction of eleven main stem dams but only gets five in the end, shouldn’t it consider alternatives? Considering the known and unknown costs of downstream effects on fisheries and livelihoods, it seems prudent for Laos to give the entire basin development plan another look.  As a sustainable, one-country alternative to relieving the pressure of hydropower development on the Mekong’s main stem along with the unbearable downstream costs related to impacted fisheries and livelihoods, the Stimson team is continuing to develop the concept of a Laos national power grid designed for both the export of hydropower and national electrification as an alternative to Laos’ current economic development plan.

The grid would be designed to optimized trade-offs related to the food- water-energy nexus on a basin wide scale. On this trip, we received much encouragement for the national power grid concept from regional government officials, but challenges still remain in convincing Laos as to why national electrification will provide more benefits than the current plan.  As a suggestion, Vietnam, as a most concerned state in regard to downstream impacts can, share the story of the benefits of rural electrification with its neighbor through the history of its own development.  Further, Vietnam’s electricity demand is increasing at 12% year-on-year prior to the TPP and could act as a major purchaser of power generated from a Laos’s national grid.

No clear trends on the China Factor.

I see no clear evidence that China’s state-owned enterprises are trending toward improving practices in Southeast Asia or that there is a concerted move from policy-motivated concessional projects to those based on financial viability. A few firms might be making improvements here or there, but even these firms are not willing to release the details and data supporting these so-called improvements. In the case of Hydrolancang’s Lower Sesan 2 project in Cambodia, the developer claims its fish passages will be successful in protecting vulnerable fish species, but will not release the research or plans for those fish passages for public observation or scrutiny. The message for Hydrolancang and other similar Chinese dam developers hasn’t changed: “We’ve conducted 100% of research relevant to these projects, and we’re confident that all problems will be solved. You only need to trust us.” But trust is built on results and transparent public relations. China simply runs a poor track record on these factors in the Mekong region.

A surprising development is that China’s firms are playing the victim when discussing their Southeast Asian projects. Officers of these firms claim Beijing put them to task on these projects while the firms have to bear the risks and interact with prickly civil society groups, unwarranted Western criticism, and unstable host governments – the Myitsone dam serves as a case in point. Yet they fail to acknowledge the unbalanced stream of benefits granted by concessional contracts or the processes through which these benefits are gained.

Further, these firms often claim to strictly follow the laws and regulations of host countries related to environmental and social impacts. Yet weak states like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have promulgated little to nothing in terms of environmental or social safeguards, so these claims of being responsible legal investors are interpreted as trite and non-persuasive.

Lastly, some anecdotal evidence points to Chinese money earmarked for overseas infrastructure development drying up in this latest round of China’s economic downturn. This discovery supports emerging conversations that Chinese firms are investing in more commercially viable or “bankable” projects. However, at the same time China’s One Belt One Road initiative appears to be creating a pool for free money given out on soft terms to any firm interested in constructing a project vaguely related to the objectives of the One Belt One Road whatever they may be. When weighing whether or not China’s upcoming investment on Mekong main-stem dams in the pipeline will be based on strategic motivations or sound financial decision making, this last point is particularly concerning.

New institutional frameworks are forming to coordinate regional policy making.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mekong River Commission is NOT the institution to solve the big issues rising the Mekong region, though it still constitutes the only treaty-based intergovernmental organization in the region, and its technical review of the Xayaburi dam and its anticipated critique of the Don Sahong project have caused both developers to delay the projects and spend hundreds of millions on significant engineering changes and additional fisheries research. But in terms of actual governmental engagement, other institutions and bilateral arrangements are beginning to fill this gap. The US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), for instance, in its still nascent form aims to promote higher standards on water resource management and assessment of infrastructure development within the region. The LMI brings together the line ministries of the four MRC countries and Myanmar several times a year in working groups both on functional “pillars” and cross-cutting issues like the water-energy-food nexus, and the prime ministers of the LMI countries meet in the wings of the annual ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where transboundary issues and impacts from hydropower dams and other major infrastructure projects can be raised to the extent that the leaders are willing to engage on them.

In response to both the US-led LMI and the waning power of the MRC, China is assembling a multi-lateral organization for joint river basin management called the Lancang-Mekong Dialogue Mechanism (LMDM). Mekong watchers should pay attention to the outcomes of the first vice-ministerial meeting of the LMDM on November 12. Further, Cambodia is negotiating a transboundary environmental impact assessment treaty with Laos and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are authoring new sets of environmental and social safeguards related to infrastructure development.

These frameworks are all coming together quite quickly. Yet even the US led LMI is said to be underfunded, uncoordinated, and unsure of its product. China’s forming of its own river basin organization is a welcomed foray into multi-lateral diplomacy, a realm often eschewed by the Chinese, but the intent and purpose of this organization is unclear. Serious cooperation on the use of the water and hydropower development will be highly limited so long as China refuses on national security grounds to provide downstream countries with the results of its hydrological and water quality studies, or the operation of its dams and other water releases from its monster reservoirs.  And whether or not new safeguards in the Mekong’s weakest countries will have teeth or just pay green-washing lip-service is unknown.  These developments all deserve our close attention.

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