Damming the Mekong River – Another example of EA failure in the transnational context

mekong river basin

Figure 1 – Mekong River Basin
Source: Institute for Environmental Security

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which is an inter-governmental agency created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam through the 1995 Mekong Agreement over joint management of the transboundary watershed (MRC 2012), has recently called for Laos to halt construction of the Xayaburi dam along the Lower Mekong (The Guardian, 2013). This recent news and the building of the Xayaburi dam is another reminder that transboundary environmental impact assessments reflect the ideal of an environmental safeguard that is not practiced in reality and will continue to perform as lip service until it is connected to “substantive prohibition” (Knox 2002) .

To expand on the issue, the Xayaburi is the first dam of eleven to be built in the area, which will worsen changes to natural flow that already exists due to dams constructed in China (Grubine et al. 2012). Figure 1 demonstrates the extent of the Mekong River Basin as well as existing dams, planned dams and dams under construction (IES 2009). Proponents of the Xayaburi dam argue that population growth and movement of people from rural to urban areas calls for hydro-power to alleviate poverty. As such, the 12 dam structure is estimated to provide 6-8% of projected power demand by 2025 as well as bring a gross income of $3.7 billion to Laos (Grubine et al 2012). Unfortunately, the watershed is home to an estimated 65 million people, with 2/3rds of that population depending on the Mekong’s fish stocks for sustenance. It is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world, second only to the Amazon, with at least 877 fish species (Ziv et al. 2012). For these reasons and more, the MRC called for a strategic environmental assessment of the 12 hydropower projects (MRC 2012). The SEA process has been criticized because construction commenced before the report was completed and before inter-governmental consultations took place (The Guardian 2013; Hirsch 2012). Furthermore, the report does not consider cumulative effects (such as existing dams in China), residents more than 10km downstream of the site could not participate even though the dam will have an impact on the migratory fish they depend on, and those that participated were not consulted but rather surveyed (Hirsch 2012).

This potential environmental disaster, which will span over four countries, is at the discretionary approval of Laos alone because the MRC Agreement, Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, does not offer veto power to countries outside a project, nor does it offer any form of substantive consequences for environmental damages to the polluter (MRC 1995). Articles 34 and 35 of the agreement arguably lie at the heart of the problem: these articles call for disputes to be settled through council and, in the case of irreconcilable differences, through”democratic channels” such as mediation (MRC 1995). These are diplomatic avenues that offer no protection for individuals, communities, even entire countries that can be affected by dam construction on the lower Mekong. The video below, “Damming the Mekong-Xayaburi,” contextualizes the issue and offers a depiction of the extent of the project as well as the dependency of many people on the Mekong for their livelihoods. In order to protect the watershed and people living within it, decision making must occur at the international level instead of the national one. Some form of substantive prohibition should exist, and some encroachment on sovereignty should occur for international organizations, such as the MRC, and transboundary EIA/SEA to succeed in protecting the environment or at least minimizing environmental degradation.

Video: Damming the Mekong – Xayaburi
Source – “Earth Reporter” accessed from Youtube


Grubine, R.E., J. Dore, and J. Xu. 2012. Mekong hydropower: drivers of change and governance challenges. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 10(2): 91-98.

The Guardian. 2013. Vietnam and Combodia tell Laos to stop $3.5bn Mekong River dam project. http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2013/jan/18/vietnam cambodia-laos-mekong-dam

Hirsch, P. Review of Xayaburi Dam EIA incorporation into regional consultation on impacts. http://www.internationalrivers.org/files/attachedfiles/hirsch_xayabouri_dam_esia_consultation_process.pdf

IES (Institute for Environmental Security). 2009. Dams in the Mekong River Basin. Enviro Security Assessments. http://www.envirosecurity.org/espa/MekongRiverBasin/maps_images.php

Knox, J.H. 2002. The myth and reality of transboundary environmental impact assessment. American Journal of International Law 96(2): 291-319.

MRC (Mekong River Commission). 1995. Agreement on the cooperation for the sustainable development of the Mekong River basin. http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/agreements/agreement-Apr95.pdf

MRC (Mekong River Commission). 2012. Environment Programme: Transboundary EIA. http://www.mrcmekong.org/aboutthemrc/programmes/environment-programme/transboundary-eia/

Ziv, G., E. Baran, S. Nam, I. Rodriguez-Iturbe, and S.A. Levin. 2012. Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. Proceedings of the National Academy of  Sciences 109(15): 5609-5614.


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