The race for hydropower development among Mekong countries could lead to conflicts or even war over water, regional security experts say.
Hydroelectric projects have begun to spring up across the Mekong River, with some already under way and other already creating tensions between Southeast Asian neighbors.
Experts on water security met in Siem Reap on Friday at a two-day conference of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific in an effort to address upcoming issues surrounding such projects and other water conflict.
“Some water-related conflicts will take place because some farmers or people who used to be living alongside the Mekong River basin, because of the dam construction, they need to be resettled, which means that there are refugees because of the dam construction, and then it will give some kinds of social impacts on particularly poor people and the marginalized,” Seungho Lee, a water expert from Korea University, based in Seoul, said on the sidelines of the conference Friday.
Government officials and experts from across the globe attended the meeting, including experts from the US, China, Japan and Southeast Asia. China already has four hydrodams in operation and four more under construction along the Mekong. At least 12 dams are planned in the lower Mekong regions of Laos and Cambodia.
Lee said as many as 41 large dams could be put on the Mekong and its tributaries by 2015, and 71 by 2030, with Laos following a development model similar to China.
Thongkhoun Sengphachanh, a representative of Laos’ Institute of Foreign Affairs, declined to comment on the government’s plan for hydrodam construction on the Mekong.
Laos recently announced it was postponing a proposed dam in Xayaburi province, following opposition by international conservation organizations and regional neighbors, although construction on the dam is reportedly under way.
Since the late 1980s, Mekong countries, especially China, have been looking at hydrodams as key energy sources to power economic growth.
“We are strongly concerned that there may be widespread conflicts or, in the worst scenario, wars, over water resource management, because we are now facing both security and economic risks in our region,” said Chheang Vannarith, executive director of Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, a member of the CSCAP.
Shichun Zhou, a representative for CSCAP China, dismissed notions that a hydrodam race was underway in the region, saying that China’s dams on the Mekong are “strategic options” for China. China has been sharing hydrology data from the Mekong with downstream countries since 2002, he said.
Neither China nor Burma are members of the Mekong River Commission, a coalition of countries aimed at jointly managing the resource. They remain dialogue partners, however.
George E. Radosevich, an international water consultant for RAD International, a private consultancy firm, said it does not matter whether or not both countries join the MRC as full members. The important thing, he said, is that each country must place joint interests higher than their individual interests own to avoid water-related conflicts.
“They have to make sure they won't cause harm to the downstream countries,” he said. “No country will be made better off at the expense of another country.”