Mekong Dam Delay: Rallying Cry for Trans-Boundary Ecosystem Management

Even as climate negotiations have virtually stalled in Durban at the latest Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP), a more promising outcome from the Greater Mekong region in Southeast Asia gives some hope for the future of trans-boundary ecosystem management. A voluntary commission of countries with great economic interest in hydropower development effectively stalled what could have been an ecologically disastrous project until more concrete scientific evidence can be collected. This represents a willingness, in short supply all over the world these days, to balance myopic national economic gain with the long-term regional environmental effects of development.

Last week, a highly anticipated ministerial level meeting, culminating from an April impasse over the future of Lao PDR’s proposed Xayaburi dam, decided to delay progress on what would be the first mainstream dam on the Lower Mekong main stem. This positive outcome should be a rallying cry for trans-boundary, science-based management of ecosystems around the world. This voluntary commission of countries effectively regulated themselves – choosing the path that respects the high-risk complexity of messing with massive environmental systems.

After plenty of controversy and the makings of a good geopolitical thriller, including leaked reports and protests in Thailand, the decision represents a positive step for regional cooperation on high-stakes environmental issues. Major knowledge gaps in environmental effects on fisheries and river geomorphology were key reasons that the four-country Mekong River Commission, made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, decided to delay the project. The Japanese government will be contracted to carry out a more detailed study of the project over the next few years.

The Mekong River system supports over 60 million people, from the mountains of China all the way down to the flood plains of coastal Vietnam. The ecosystem services are valued in the billions of dollars for the largest freshwater fishery alone, an irreplaceable source of protein for the region. 

The Mekong River Commission provided a framework for the precautionary principle to take effect – downstream countries in the region expressed serious concerns about a plan of action that could have considerable irreversible effects on the ecosystems of the region. This decision puts the burden of proof on the perpetrator of the potentially harmful action. The Lao government and a Thai engineering firm will have to show that their dam design has taken appropriate mitigation measures for the many risks associated with the project.

Trans-boundary ecosystem governance is the way of the future and needs to be embraced by countries throughout the world. Most resources aren’t contained within the arbitrary political jurisdictions of just one country. Treating them as such often leads to misguided or incomplete management and can cause a perpetual cycle of degradation.

Trans-boundary ecosystem management can solve the problem of leakage – where a forest protected on one side of a border, for example, causes the illegal logging or poaching to move to the other side of the border. Looking at the resource as a complete system can help target the roots of the problems and prevent policy that merely moves the problem to another place.

As governments in Durban stall and haggle over urgent climate and environmental decisions, the postponement of the Xayaburi dam until the wide scientific gaps surrounding the effects of the project can be reconciled symbols a win, at least temporarily, for trans-boundary ecosystem management. Our world’s future is bound to be rife with disagreements over resources – freshwater, forest, marine, and others. We must move towards a model of regional cooperation guided by scientific rigor rather than short-sighted nationalistic exploitation of these systems upon which so many rely.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hermes