Start Date

8-12-2012 5:00 PM

End Date

8-12-2012 6:15 PM

Description

Abstract

The Mekong River traces its 4,900 kilometer path southwards through the heart of mainland Southeast Asia from its source in the Himalayan Tibetan plateau through Yunnan Province of China, Myanmar/ Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Host to the world’s largest inland fishery and vital to agriculture, the Mekong River is a transboundary commons that is central to the livelihoods, local economies and culture of millions of people living within the basin.

Mainland Southeast Asia is rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and undergoing a process of regional economic integration shaped predominantly by neoliberal economic policies. Economic growth is uneven, however, and large areas still maintain a predominantly rural character. The Mekong River, whilst at present largely free-flowing, holds significant potential to generate large amounts of hydro-electricity and to supply water for irrigated agriculture, although such development would inevitably hold consequences for the river’s ecology and natural resources and for the communities presently dependent upon them.

In 1995, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam committed to intergovernmental cooperation through the Mekong River Commission (MRC) “…in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management and conservation of the water and related resources…” Strengths of the MRC include: a relatively comprehensive scientific knowledge base; data sharing between countries; and a framework for inter-government cooperation. Weaknesses include: the soft law status and ambiguities of the intergovernmental agreement itself; the absence of upstream China as a member; and the tendency of governments to negotiate according to “national interest” that privileges those state and private sector actors with powerful economic interests over riparian community interests.

Since the early 1990s, construction of a cascade of up to eight hydropower dams has been underway on the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River mainstream in Yunnan Province of China. These dams, developed without negotiation with downstream countries, have impacted on ecosystems and communities in downstream Thailand and Laos. Furthermore, since mid-2006, plans for eleven mainstream dams for the lower Mekong River have been proposed by multi-national energy and construction companies from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The 1,260 megawatts Xayaburi Dam, located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in Northern Laos, is the lower mainstream dam at the most advanced stage of development. The dam would export 95% of its electricity to Thailand and is proposed by a predominantly Thai private-sector consortium. The project has been heavily contested. The project developers, Thailand’s Ministry of Energy, and the Government of Laos have argued that the project will ensure Thailand’s national energy security whilst contributing to national economic development in Laos. Project opponents, including academics, local communities and civil society groups both regionally and internationally, have pointed out the project’s environmental, social and cultural costs, including to food security and livelihoods. They have organized petitions, public forums, protests on the streets of Bangkok, and many other activities voicing their opposition. Despite the absence of regional agreement, including from the governments of downstream Cambodia and Vietnam, some construction and resettlement activity has already commenced and the Laos Government has stated its commitment to build the project.

The controversy around the Xayaburi Dam reflects deeper transitions within the regional political economy of energy development from state-led to private-sector led investment in hydropower dams. Influential public-listed construction and energy companies shape relatively unaccountable electricity planning processes in Thailand, including by building nexuses with relevant state agencies to promote their projects. Superficial processes of formal public participation mask deeper political inequalities in decision-making with implications for the politics of sharing the Mekong River and for cross-border environmental justice.

A contested politics of reimagining the Mekong River and its role in “development” has emerged to legitimize construction of these large dams. This involves discourses by project proponents that rescale and reframe the Mekong River from the river as a common pool resource central to the livelihoods of riverside fishing and farming communities to the river as a common good for regional economic cooperation and growth through generating cheap electricity, cross-border power trade, and ensuring energy security. This is pursued through new regional institutions for promoting and facilitating electricity trade, and by reframing the Mekong River’s flowing water as a valuable and scarce commodity most efficiently utilized for development by harnessing the river’s hydropower potential -thus weakening communities’ claims for right to access. Behind this legitimizing discourse, however, is a process of accumulation by dispossession that would either fully enclose or otherwise degrade the common pool resources currently accessed by riparian communities, and transform the river into a new source of profit for private-sector dam developers. At the same time, the risks and harms created by the dams will become socialized, creating new inequalities and vulnerabilities for riverside communities.

Streaming Media

Carl Middleton-abstract-chi.docx (7 kB)
Chinese Version_Abstract

Recommended Citation

Middleton, C. (2012, December). Contestation, cooperation and the transborder commons. Paper presented at 2012 International Conference on Sustainability & Rural Reconstruction, Southwest University, Chongqingng, China.

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Dec 8th, 5:00 PM Dec 8th, 6:15 PM

Contestation, cooperation and the transborder commons

Abstract

The Mekong River traces its 4,900 kilometer path southwards through the heart of mainland Southeast Asia from its source in the Himalayan Tibetan plateau through Yunnan Province of China, Myanmar/ Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Host to the world’s largest inland fishery and vital to agriculture, the Mekong River is a transboundary commons that is central to the livelihoods, local economies and culture of millions of people living within the basin.

Mainland Southeast Asia is rapidly industrializing, urbanizing, and undergoing a process of regional economic integration shaped predominantly by neoliberal economic policies. Economic growth is uneven, however, and large areas still maintain a predominantly rural character. The Mekong River, whilst at present largely free-flowing, holds significant potential to generate large amounts of hydro-electricity and to supply water for irrigated agriculture, although such development would inevitably hold consequences for the river’s ecology and natural resources and for the communities presently dependent upon them.

In 1995, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam committed to intergovernmental cooperation through the Mekong River Commission (MRC) “…in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management and conservation of the water and related resources…” Strengths of the MRC include: a relatively comprehensive scientific knowledge base; data sharing between countries; and a framework for inter-government cooperation. Weaknesses include: the soft law status and ambiguities of the intergovernmental agreement itself; the absence of upstream China as a member; and the tendency of governments to negotiate according to “national interest” that privileges those state and private sector actors with powerful economic interests over riparian community interests.

Since the early 1990s, construction of a cascade of up to eight hydropower dams has been underway on the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River mainstream in Yunnan Province of China. These dams, developed without negotiation with downstream countries, have impacted on ecosystems and communities in downstream Thailand and Laos. Furthermore, since mid-2006, plans for eleven mainstream dams for the lower Mekong River have been proposed by multi-national energy and construction companies from Thailand, China, Vietnam and Malaysia.

The 1,260 megawatts Xayaburi Dam, located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in Northern Laos, is the lower mainstream dam at the most advanced stage of development. The dam would export 95% of its electricity to Thailand and is proposed by a predominantly Thai private-sector consortium. The project has been heavily contested. The project developers, Thailand’s Ministry of Energy, and the Government of Laos have argued that the project will ensure Thailand’s national energy security whilst contributing to national economic development in Laos. Project opponents, including academics, local communities and civil society groups both regionally and internationally, have pointed out the project’s environmental, social and cultural costs, including to food security and livelihoods. They have organized petitions, public forums, protests on the streets of Bangkok, and many other activities voicing their opposition. Despite the absence of regional agreement, including from the governments of downstream Cambodia and Vietnam, some construction and resettlement activity has already commenced and the Laos Government has stated its commitment to build the project.

The controversy around the Xayaburi Dam reflects deeper transitions within the regional political economy of energy development from state-led to private-sector led investment in hydropower dams. Influential public-listed construction and energy companies shape relatively unaccountable electricity planning processes in Thailand, including by building nexuses with relevant state agencies to promote their projects. Superficial processes of formal public participation mask deeper political inequalities in decision-making with implications for the politics of sharing the Mekong River and for cross-border environmental justice.

A contested politics of reimagining the Mekong River and its role in “development” has emerged to legitimize construction of these large dams. This involves discourses by project proponents that rescale and reframe the Mekong River from the river as a common pool resource central to the livelihoods of riverside fishing and farming communities to the river as a common good for regional economic cooperation and growth through generating cheap electricity, cross-border power trade, and ensuring energy security. This is pursued through new regional institutions for promoting and facilitating electricity trade, and by reframing the Mekong River’s flowing water as a valuable and scarce commodity most efficiently utilized for development by harnessing the river’s hydropower potential -thus weakening communities’ claims for right to access. Behind this legitimizing discourse, however, is a process of accumulation by dispossession that would either fully enclose or otherwise degrade the common pool resources currently accessed by riparian communities, and transform the river into a new source of profit for private-sector dam developers. At the same time, the risks and harms created by the dams will become socialized, creating new inequalities and vulnerabilities for riverside communities.