Mekong `hydro diplomacy’ falling short
Experts at a conference in Chiang Rai held out hope that future transborder water conflicts such as the one over Laos’ Xayaburi dam will be dealt with in a more inclusive and sustainable manner, but the concept is still in its infancy in the region
In a conference room in Chiang Rai recently, more than 100 water experts from around the world put their heads together to try to find new approaches to dealing with transborder water issues more effectively. Jargon flew about the room, especially the term “hydro diplomacy”. Not surprisingly, a topic on everyone’s lips was the Xayaburi dam project in in Laos, where last Wednesday, despite strong protests from locals and environmentalists and unsettled points of contention among Mekong River Commission (MRC) member states, Laos suddenly proceeded with a ground-breaking ceremony at the construction site to mark the official start of the project.
At the conference, Dr Robert Marther, with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), said the Xayaburi dam project has shown that a shared vision on water resources does not exist in the Mekong region. Each country still looks out only for its own interests and not at sharing benefits in development opportunities.
“If we apply the concept of hydro diplomacy to the Mekong situation, we may have more choices other than negotiations on ambitions to build a dam…” said Mr Marther. He defined hydro diplomacy as a negotiation among riparian countries to achieve shared benefits. The dialogue needs to be inclusive, embracing all concerned stakeholders and all sectors to achieve a sustainable goal. In hydro diplomacy, a negotiation platform, generally a river basin organisation, has a crucial role in bringing about a consensus among the stakeholders. In the Mekong region, the MRC acts as the negotiation platform. However, said Dr Marther, something is apparently missing from the current mechanism of the MRC.