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Introduction: Changing
Waterscapes in the Mekong Region
– Historical Background and
Context
François Molle, Tira Foran and Philippe Floch
INTRODUCTION
The Mekong region fans out from the folds of the eastern Himalayas that give birth
to its main arteries, including, from west to east, the Irrawaddy, the Nu-Salween,
the Chao Phraya, the Lancang/Mekong and the Red rivers (see Figure 1.1). These
rivers have constituted defi ning features of Southeast Asian cultures, religions, ways
of life and substantive economies. Winding through deep gorges in their upper
reaches, the regions rivers, together with their tributaries, have lent themselves to
the construction of dams and hydropower generation plants. Entering large plains
and ending in wide deltas, they have been diverted to support large-scale irrigation,
while all along their course, they have long provided fi sh and other aquatic products
to local dwellers, as well as means of transportation. In upper catchments, their
tributaries have, for centuries, been tapped by highlanders for small-scale irrigation
and other domestic uses.
As a result, agrarian landscapes have traditionally been divided between
forested highlands, exploited directly or through swidden farming techniques;
intermountain valleys with bottoms mostly under paddy cultivation; large plains
and deltas devoted to rice cultivation under various guises; and uplands planted
to both rice and fi eld crops. With time and the closure of agricultural frontiers,
2 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
water use and cultivation have intensifi ed; greater levels of control over water
have also been achieved through continuing investments in embankments,
canals, drains, reservoirs, pumping stations and on-farm irrigation infrastructures.
More recently, water came to be partly ‘recaptured’ and further domesticated by
urban and industrial interests, supplying cities, diluting waste and generating
hydroelectricity.
This book focuses on the dynamics of waterscape transformation in the Mekong
region: by waterscape we mean here the surface and groundwater resources of an
area of land and their interrelationships with other physical, climatic and biotic
elements, as well as with human activities. Waterscapes are an expression of the
interaction between humans and their environment and encompass all of the social,
economic and political processes through which water in nature is conceived of
and manipulated by societies. In other words, waterscapes are landscapes viewed
through the lens of their water resources, taken as a defi ning element of both
ecosystems and human life.
As the subtitle indicates, this volume puts particular emphasis on three
dimensions of Mekong waterscape transformations: fi rst, many current changes
and challenges revolve around hydropower. For various reasons that include the
Indochina wars and other political circumstances, the region is still characterized
by a low density of large dams compared with other parts of the world. But current
economic growth rates combined with high fossil fuel prices have spurred a rush
towards hydropower generation that has the potential to completely remodel
regional waterscapes. Second, livelihoods refer to the means of subsistence of
rural, often impoverished, populations for whom a substantial part of their
livelihoods is linked to the use and management of forest and wetland ecosystems,
sheries and the practice of rain-fed and irrigated agriculture. As such, they are
directly threatened by large-scale transformations designed and decided in other
spheres, often without their knowledge. The third issue of governance refers to
the distribution of decision-making power. All transformative options that result
in large-scale alterations of the hydrological regime, in terms of quantity, quality,
timing or sediment load, tend to generate externalities that affect particular
ecosystems and users. These externalities result from the nature of the hydrological
regime, which interconnects individual or groups across river basins, and from
its manipulation through hydraulic infrastructure and associated management
rules. All interventions, whether implemented by the state (dams, fl ood control,
irrigation schemes, inter-basin transfers, etc.) or resulting from combined small-
scale decisions (e.g. individual well-drilling and construction of farm ponds), tend
to generate costs, benefi ts and risks. Governance, thus, refers to the way in which
decisions are made and power exercised, and to the spatial and social distribution
of related benefi ts and externalities. The intent of this volume is to contribute to
a better understanding of the transformation currently under way in the Mekong
region, what is at stake, who benefi ts and who is at risk, and to improved water
INTRODUCTION 3
Figure 1.1 The main river basins of the Mekong region
Source: adapted from Kummu (2008)
4 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
governance by reopening and investigating the political dimensions of decision-
making over water resources in the Mekong region.
BRIEF HISTORY OF WATER RESOURCES DEVELOPMENT
IN THE MEKONG REGION
Much scholarly work has described and analysed the history of water resources
development in the Mekong region, notably the Mekong Basin itself, both in
physical and institutional terms (see, for example, Bakker, 1999; Friesen, 1999;
Thi Dieu, 1999; Browder, 2000; Hori, 2000; Le-Huu and Nguyen-Duc, 2003;
Ratner, 2003; Hirsch and Jensen, 2006). This section only recaps the main
historical benchmarks as a way of contextualizing the questions addressed in the
chapters of this volume.
Early planning and the formation and demise of the
Mekong Committee (1951 to 1975)
The initiation of ‘modern’ and coordinated efforts to ‘harness’ the Mekong River
are generally associated with the establishment of the United Nations Economic
Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), which was created in 1946 in
an effort to promote post-war economic development in the region. But it was
not until the seventh ECAFE session, held in 1951, that a call to study technical
problems of river fl ood control would shape the Lower Mekong Basins water
developmental visions for at least the next 40 years. By 1952, ECAFE’s Bureau
of Flood Control had drawn up a working paper (ECAFE, 1952) that, far from
dealing solely with fl ood control, also detailed a wider vision for water resources
development in the Mekong Basin.
Apart from ECAFE’s interest in promoting regional development, the US
increasingly looked at Southeast Asia as a critical terrain in its efforts to contain
the spread of communism after Maos takeover of China in 1949, and saw
economic development as one measure of its wider containment policy for the
region. By 1955, the International Cooperation Administration (a precursor to the
United States Agency for International Development, or USAID) commissioned
the United States Bureau of Reclamation (USBR) to conduct a study that was
published in 1956 (USBR, 1956)1 but largely ignored by the riparian governments.
ECAFE and its executive secretary produced their own study, which was presented
at ECAFE’s tenth anniversary meeting (ECAFE, 1957). The consultants hired by
ECAFE laid out a preliminary development scheme that identifi ed fi ve primary
dam projects on the Lower Mekong mainstream (Pa Mong, Khemerat, Khone Falls,
Sambor and Tonle Sap), two more mainstream possibilities (near Luang Prabang
and Thakhek) and a tributary site (Nam Theun River in Laos).
INTRODUCTION 5
In October 1957, the Committee for Coordination and Investigations of
the Lower Mekong Basin (in short, the Mekong Committee) was established
with the mandate to ‘promote, coordinate, supervise and control planning and
investigations of water resources development projects in the lower Mekong Basin
(Article 4 of the statute). It was also given the authority to prepare and submit
plans for coordinated research, study and investigations, make special fi nancial
and technical funding requests, and recommend to the four riparian governments
criteria for sharing water resources – an authority that would offi cially sanction
the role of the committee in ‘harnessing’ the Mekong River (Friesen, 1999). An
executive agent was posted in 1959 and a permanent offi ce created later.
A review study of the earlier USBR (1956) and ECAFE (1957) reports
was entrusted to Lieutenant General Raymond A. Wheeler, a retired engineer
from the US Army Corps of Engineering, who recommended three top-priority
projects: the Pa Mong, Sambor and Tonle Sap dams. Wheeler was seized by what
he called ‘a majestic river’ and was readily ‘convinced of the great potential of the
Lower Mekong for service to the riparian countries in the fi elds of navigation,
hydropower generation, irrigation and other related water uses’. The Japanese,
likewise, promoted the development of the Lower Mekong and surveyed 34
‘promising’ tributaries, among them the rivers of northeast Thailand, for which
they envisioned a ‘remarkable development of agriculture’ if the Mekong waters
could be diverted to this otherwise little fertile region (Hori, 2000). US geographer
Gilbert White’s (1962) report called for carefully designed tributary projects, but
underlined the economic risk of over-enthusiasm and large ‘monolithic concrete
structures whose immediate return is infl ation of national ego’. The development
focus of the Mekong Committee shifted somewhat to tributary projects, with a
total of eight dams constructed up to the early 1970s under its auspices, including
the Nam Ngum Dam in Laos and several others in northeast Thailand.
Thailand, the closest Cold War ally to the US in mainland Southeast Asia,
received substantial economic aid and advice from the US and the World Bank,
with an emphasis on electrifi cation, roads, reservoirs and canals (Muscat, 1990).
Technical and fi nancial support were instrumental in helping Thailand to construct
several large power generation projects, including the 535MW multipurpose
Bhumipol (Yunhee) Dam on the Ping River (a tributary of the Chao Phraya),
commissioned in 1964, and the early stages of Thailand’s electricity transmission
network (Greacen, 2004). Under their advice, in 1968, Thailand established a
state-owned electricity utility, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand
(EGAT).
The 150MW Nam Ngum 1 Dam, the fi rst large hydropower dam in Laos,
was built with technical advice from the Mekong Committee and the World Bank
in the late 1960s. Located in Vientiane Province, 90km north of the capital, the
project was built as the US-backed Royal Army and the Vietnam-backed Pathet
Lao Army fought for control of the country (Thi Dieu, 1999). To make way for
the project, at least 800 families were resettled; yet none received any compensation
6 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
(Hirsch, 1998). Inaugurated in 1971 and foreshadowing what would become the
predominant development strategy of Laos from the 1980s onwards, the Nam
Ngum 1 Dam became a signifi cant earner2 for Laos and now sells 70 to 80 per
cent of its power to Thailand.
The US was the largest non-riparian aid donor and provided 37 per cent
of the total US$86 million contribution to the Mekong Committee in the fi rst
ten years of its existence (Friesen, 1999). In 1958, the US government signed an
agreement with the Mekong Committee for the collection of basic scientifi c data
for the whole of the Lower Mekong mainstream, and in 1961 agreed to fund the
phase 1 pre-feasibility study of the Pa Mong mainstream project, together with a
later feasibility study. The Pa Mong Dam was the cornerstone and poster child of
US strategy in the region. The dam, as laid out in studies by USBR (1970), was of
truly awesome dimensions: 98m in height, a storage capacity of over 100 billion
cubic metres, could generate up to 4000MW, irrigate some 2 million hectares
and inundate a total area of almost 4000km2 (see Figure 1.2). It would displace
250,000 people, a fi gure that was later revised upwards to 400,000. At the cost of
US$1 billion, the Pa Mong would be the worlds largest multipurpose dam at the
time, an engineer’s dream and a ‘once in a lifetime’ project for Lyle Mabbott, the
Pa Mong project manager (Jenkins, 1968).
In 1970, the Mekong Committee published its first major basin-wide
development plan: the Indicative Basin Plan (IBP) (Mekong Secretariat, 1970).
The report built on the previous studies and was, by any standards, grandiose
and comprehensive, listing some 180 possible projects on the tributaries and
the mainstream: it defi ned short- and long-term (up to the year 2000) goals; it
emphasized that large-scale irrigation was necessary to transform the agricultural
sector; it saw hydroelectric power generation as a key to securing industrialization
for greater prosperity; it found that fl ood control relied on dikes and dams on
the mainstream; and it foresaw transportation from the mouth of the Mekong
in Vietnam to upper Laos facilitated by a series of cascading dams equipped
with navigation locks (see Figure 1.3). While the tributary projects were seen
as attractive in dealing with the short-term developmental needs of riparian
countries, it was the long-term development potential of the major dams that
would comprehensively uplift the region (see Figure 1.3). The IBP report also
proposed additional fi eld investigations that would include fi sheries, forestry,
resettlement, wildlife, sedimentation, Mekong River crossings, navigation facilities,
urban studies, archaeological studies and environmental studies (Friesen, 1999).
Four mainstream sites were to be completed by the 1980s (the Pa Mong in
1983, the Stung Treng and Sambor in 1985 and the Tonle Sap Barrage in 1987)
at a total cost of US$10 billion. However, growing unrest and resistance by the
Pathet Lao guerrillas in the region eventually derailed the Pa Mong Project, making
it both too costly and too risky (Biggs, 2006). The Mekong Committee ultimately
disbanded in 1975, when the Pathet Lao and the Khmer Rouge acceded to power,
while Vietnam was about to reunify.
INTRODUCTION 7
In Vietnam, throughout the Cold War period, Russia provided support in much
the same way that the US and World Bank supported Thailand (Greacen and
Palettu, 2007). Russian support for development of Vietnam’s electricity sector
was channelled through the state-owned monopoly, Electricity of Vietnam (EVN).
Signifi cant technical and fi nancial support was provided for Vietnams earlier
hydropower projects, including the massive 1920MW Hoa Binh Dam that
commenced in 1979, was completed in 1994, and remains mainland Southeast
Asias largest dam.
Figure 1.2 The Pa Mong Dam Project (1970)
Source: USBR (1970)
8 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
The Interim Committee and the revision of a development
vision (1975 to 1992)
The US withdrawal from Southeast Asia left a large hole in project funding and
the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which had picked up
funding where the now-defunct ECAFE had left off, reduced its contribution from
US$5.6 million in 1973 to zero in 1976. Contributions to the committee from
riparian nations also dropped signifi cantly because of their own fi nancial situation
(Friesen, 1999). These changes altered the working base of the Mekong Committee
dramatically. In 1978, after one year of negotiations, the three remaining country
members of the original group negotiated new terms of cooperation and decided
to form the Interim Committee for Coordination of Investigations of the Lower
Mekong Basin, with a base in Bangkok.
Apart from the lack of fi nancial resources, the withdrawal of Cambodia made
the dream of developing the Mekong mainstream look more distant; subsequently,
Figure 1.3 Plans for hydropower development in Laos (1970)
Note: Reservoir water bodies appear in the darkest shade of grey.
Source: Mekong Secretariat (1970)
INTRODUCTION 9
the focus of the committee shifted to smaller and national (tributary) projects.
This, however, did not entail that the vision of comprehensive development of
the mainstream had vanished. In 1980, an Interim Mekong Committee study
reiterated that a mainstream cascade of dams should have priority once the
committee was reunited to its initial four-member structure. In an effort to reframe
and reassess the options for water resources development, a revised Indicative Basin
Plan was published in 1987 (Interim Committee, 1988) as only 16 out of the 180
possible projects outlined in the Indicative Basin Plan had been implemented.
Unlike the fi rst basin plan, out of pragmatism and political realism, the 1987 plan
refocused its attention on the development potential of each individual country,
yet still proposing a cascade of eight dams on the mainstream as the best option
for long-term development of the basins water resources (Mitchell, 1998). The Pa
Mong, still seen as the cornerstone of the overall development scheme, was now
considered ‘problematic’ and its proposed height reduced from 250m above mean
sea level (amsl) to 210m amsl in order to reduce the scale of resettlement. The
Lower Pa Mong and Nam Theun 2 (NT2) projects were seen as ‘enjoy[ing] very
attractive economics … [and] should, therefore, from an economic and technical
point of view, be built as soon as possible’. Signifi cantly, unlike the 1970 plan, the
revision now saw the generation of hydropower as the largest benefi t of developing
a cascade on the Mekong mainstream, with other benefi ts, such as fl ood control,
sheries and navigation, insignifi cant in economic terms.
In the wake of the 1987 revised plan, in 1990 the Interim Committee
commissioned another study of the potentialities for mainstream development:
Mekong Mainstream Development Possibilities: Summary Report (Interim Committee,
1990). Although a more environmentally sensitive rhetoric was deployed and
(minimal) changes to the cascade scheme were made, the report did not really
change the overall confi guration of the Mekong development project. Resettlement,
however, was – at least in this report – considered a priority parameter of a project
selection process guided by ‘limitation imposed by resettlement requirements,
conservation of the environment, minimum fl ow requirements for downstream
interests, reduction of downstream effects caused by varying releases for power
production in the case of peaking operations’ (Interim Committee, 1990). The
total number of people to be displaced by the development of the cascade, however,
was still estimated at 330,000; and this was only a rough and preliminary estimate,
which led to the conclusion that more studies on social and environmental impacts
would be required on a project-by-project basis.
In the late 1980s, Laos started to parallel Thailand’s effort at developing
hydropower on the Mekong Rivers tributaries. Following a 1991 World Bank-
endorsed feasibility study, which stated that it was the ‘best option’ for hydropower
development in Laos, the NT2 Dam was more vigorously pushed forward; together
with other plans at Ho Houay and Nam Theun-Hinboun, a total of 23 projects
were targeted for construction up until 2010.
10 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
In 1991, the Mekong Secretariat commissioned the Compagnie Nationale
du Rhône (France) and Acres International (Canada) to study (again) alternative
ways of putting the Mekong River’s resources to use. Unlike previous studies, the
planners switched from the classical cascade of storage dams on the mainstream to
a cascade of ‘smaller’ run-of-river projects (CNR and Acres International Limited,
1994).
The Mekong River Commission and its Indicative Basin Plan
(1992 to present)
The geopolitical implications of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the
weakening of its satellite states since the mid 1980s set in motion substantial shifts
in the Mekong regions political and economic landscape. In 1986, the governments
of Laos and Vietnam, while remaining socialist states, initiated market-oriented
economic reforms (Doi moi tu duy in Vietnam and the New Economic Mechanism
in Laos). In Cambodia, the signing of the Paris Peace Accords paved the way for
democratic elections in 1993 and the country’s transition to a market-oriented
econ omy. In Thailand, then Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan famously
called for a transformation of the Mekong region ‘from battlefi elds to marketplaces’,
heralding his government’s policy shift from that of Cold War hostility towards
the promotion of regional trade and investment and triggering renewed hope that
the Mekong Committee could fi nally be reinstated with all its original member
states.
As regional stability was restored step by step, Western bilateral aid agencies,
the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) returned in earnest,
offering aid and investment opportunities. Support for hydropower projects was
high on their agendas (Ryder, 2004). By 1991, with funding from Sweden, Norway,
the ADB and UNDP, the second largest hydropower dam in Laos, the 45MW Xeset
1 Dam, was completed, generating electricity for export to Thailand and domestic
consumption. In 1995, a new arrangement between the four original members
of the Mekong Committee was signed, and the four governments re-established
their cooperative efforts under the new banner of the Mekong River Commission
(MRC), despite its weakened mandate compared with that of the original Mekong
Committee (Ratner, 2003; see Chapter 14 in this volume).
In 1992, the ADB launched the Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS)
programme, endorsed by the regions governments, which set a path towards regional
economic integration (ADB, 2007). Centred on establishing a market-based
economy, the GMS programme, to date, has emphasized physical interconnectivity
of the region, entailing the construction of major infrastructure projects such as
transnational highways, railways, hydropower dams and regional transmission
lines, and programmes that encourage cross-border trade and the integration of
markets. The GMS programme has shaped many Western bilateral donors and
the World Bank’s aid strategies towards the Mekong region.
INTRODUCTION 11
Undeniably, aggregate economic wealth has grown remarkably throughout
the region. Far less, however, has been achieved in addressing the environmental
and social issues that have accompanied this economic growth (Cornford and
Matthews, 2007). The fact that much of the economic activity promoted under the
GMS programme relies on the exploitation of the regions natural resources leads
to a readily apparent contradiction within the programme’s goals of widespread
economic growth and helping to ‘ensure sustainable development and conservation
of natural resources’ (ADB, 2007). Furthermore, much of economic growth has
benefi ted urban areas rather than rural areas, leading to negative impacts on
subsistence-based rural livelihoods and growing inequality (UNEP and TEI,
2007).
The ADB’s GMS programme has replaced the earlier Mekong Committee
as the principal framework for channelling economic development assistance
into regional projects (Ratner, 2003). This allowed the ADB to focus unhindered
on regional economic development, while leaving the potentially contentious
management of the Mekong River to the MRC (see Chapter 14).
CURRENT CHALLENGES AND DYNAMICS
The Mekong regions economic dynamism is associated with social, economic
and environmental transformations that include deforestation and environmental
degradation; growing commercialization of agriculture and increasingly multi-
sectoral rural livelihoods; urbanization and industrialization; increased migration
and the spread of diseases such as HIV; and population growth in the Mekong
Basin that rose from 35 million in 1970 to 65 million at present (Parnwell and
Bryant, 1996; Rigg, 1997; de Koninck, 2003).
Natural resources are under pressure and countries such as Laos or Cambodia
are opening up to foreign investors interested in exploiting mines or expanding
plantations of trees for either pulp or oil/biofuel production. A paramount current
dynamic is the groundswell of hydropower projects in the region. Dams recently
concluded or under construction include a cascade of dams in China’s upper
reaches in the Lancang River (the Upper Mekong), the NT2 Dam in Laos, and
several others in the ‘3S’ region3 shared by Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The
growing enthusiasm for hydropower is increasingly driven and exploited by private
companies, fi nanciers and government elites who largely bypass the traditional
players such as the MRC, the ADB or the World Bank, with complex impacts
upon political decision-making (Chapters 2 and 14). While electricity-dependent
segments of society (particularly industry, but also urban elites) may benefit
from hydropower plants, the manner in which many projects are currently being
developed offers little comfort to those affected. Across the region, one fi nds no
shortage of easy rhetoric about how export-oriented hydropower will help ‘kick-
start development’, help ‘eradicate poverty’ or ‘power progress’, but far fewer
12 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
examples of tangible links between investor-owned dams and rural electrifi cation
or improved livelihoods.
In parallel with the interest in hydropower, Mekong countries display
ongoing interest in expanding irrigation and fl ood control infrastructure. Despite
disappointing experiences with recent irrigation development or rehabilitation
projects in Laos and Cambodia, the promise of improved productivity, food security
and poverty alleviation puts irrigation expansion on the agenda of politicians and
development banks. Thai politicians also mobilize such arguments when making
renewed proposals for massive irrigation development (e.g. with the Water Grid
Project), most particularly in northeast Thailand (see Chapter 10). Opportunities
for rent-seeking from large construction contracts may also drive irrigation agencies
and consulting fi rms. Globally, the World Bank has argued that it is necessary to
boost investment in water infrastructure (Grey and Sadoff, 2007), while high rice
prices in 2007 to 2008 have quickened new donor interest in expanding irrigation
works in Cambodia.
In the Mekong region, the burst of investor interest in hydropower and the
revival of donor interest in irrigation take place in a governance context where
developers externalize costs; where authorities do not systematically screen and
rank projects according to economic, environmental and social criteria; and
where planners think in terms of supply-side, not demand-side, alternatives
(Greacen and Palettu, 2007). In short, recent water resources development
occurs in a context where evidence of coordinated, rigorously justified river
basin development is not strong. Despite a process of democratization and the
emergence or strengthening of civil society organizations (NGOs, academics and
community-based organizations), megaproject triumphalism complemented by
faith that socio-political and ecological impacts can be mitigated and transcended
remains pervasive.
As the volume’s opening chapters on hydropower assert, currents of modernist
progress in the Mekong are being challenged by important counter-currents of
critique and resistance. Such critique, when informed by credible knowledge
(e.g. regarding irrigation design and implementation) offers a set of lessons about
making development work (see Chapter 6). But, of course, in the gulf between
lessons offered and lessons learned we fi nd the full spectrum of politics. How
political processes unfold varies among Mekong countries; but one important
dynamic since the 1990s is that of national and transnational civil society advocacy.
Obvious targets for such advocacy are the MRC (ostensibly set up to harmonize
river basin development plans) and international development banks. But advocacy
networks have also raised concerns about the downstream impacts of Chinas plans
to build a cascade of hydropower dams on the Lancang (Upper Mekong) and
similar plans to develop hydropower on the Nu-Salween River in China, as well
as in Myanmar/Burma.
The governments in the Mekong region have often dismissed or constrained
critical conversations about water, social change and development. The techniques
INTRODUCTION 13
of constraint can be direct, as with the suppression of dissent in the military regime
of Myanmar, or indirect, through the production of knowledge (see Chapters 3 and
12) or ad hoc ‘participatory’ processes rolled out by a variety of agencies (see Chapter
13). But instead of drawing only pessimistic conclusions about democratization in
the region, the chapters in this book invite the reader to explore more thoroughly
how waterscapes have been, and are being, imagined and transformed.
STRUCTURE OF THE BOOK
This volume is divided into three parts that follow this introductory chapter. The
rst part focuses on hydropower expansion in the region, the second on issues of
livelihoods and local development, while the third part refl ects on knowledge,
discourses and power.
Chapter 2 by Carl Middleton, Jelson Garcia and Tira Foran focuses on the
phenomenon of ‘new’ hydropower developers and fi nanciers, but also tracks how
long-standing actors such as the World Bank and international civil society have
responded to the entry of players with apparently lower environmental and social
standards. Hydropower dam development in the region is then illustrated by three
case studies of dams in various stages of development.
Chapter 3 by Tira Foran and Kanokwan Manorom provides an account of the
history and politics of contention over Thailand’s Pak Mun Dam. Built between
1990 and 1994 in a context of local support and resistance, the Pak Mun case
offers a wealth of insights into the challenges of fair compensation, mitigation
and participatory management, as well as a window into the complexity of
rural livelihoods and democratization. Chapter 4 by Shannon Lawrence reviews
the development of the Nam Theun 2 Dam, the largest as well as one of the
most publicized and contentious water resource projects in Laos. Containing
a trans-basin water diversion, hydropower and rural development scheme of
unprecedented size, complexity and aspiration, the project breaks new ground in
terms of promises made to better the lives of affected people. The chapter explores
the enormous challenges of ‘doing dams right’, while a different perspective on
the same challenge is given by Patchamuthu Illangovan of the World Bank as a
chapter appendix. Chapter 5 by Darrin Magee and Shawn Kelly takes us to the
Salween River in Myanmar, describing the emerging plans to develop a series of
large hydropower dams on both the upper and middle reaches of Asias longest
undammed river. The authors explore, in particular, the 7000MW Tasang Project
in Shan State, showing how private enterprise has taken the lead from the Thai
state in tapping hydropower from Myanmar. In what has so far been a decidedly
non-transparent undertaking, the authors shed light on the project’s investors and
lenders, the production of feasibility studies, likely impact on local inhabitants,
and measures to ensure transparency and accountability.
14 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
Part II of the book provides a series of case studies of distinctive Mekong
livelihoods, situating them historically and in the context of modern development
practices. Chapter 6 by Chu Thai Hoanh and colleagues explores irrigation, an
activity that accounts for 80 to 90 per cent of all water abstractions in the Mekong
region. Water is considered a key factor for shifting from single-crop, mainly rain-
fed rice, to multiple cropping systems and increasing crop yields. Large investments
in irrigation systems have been made in all Mekong countries; more effort is also
being paid to improving the effi ciency of existing schemes. But the rationale that
underpinned irrigation development worldwide during the 1960s and 1970s is
being increasingly questioned for countries such as Vietnam or Thailand. The
potential for poverty alleviation in Laos or Cambodia seems substantial; but recent
disappointing experience with projects demands caution.
Chapter 7 by David J. H. Blake, Richard Friend and Buapun Promphakping
takes us to the Nam Songkhram, a river basin that drains into the Mekong River
south of Vientiane. The Songkhram is Thailand’s largest fl oodplain wetlands in
the Mekong Basin. Its fertile fl ood-dependent waterscape, however, is recurrently
the subject of various infrastructure proposals designed to ‘develop’ a region that
authorities classify as infertile and view its population as poor and vulnerable to
both fl ood and drought. On the other hand, environmental organizations have
documented and defended the productivity and diversity of the Songkhrams fl ood
and recession hydrology. Countervailing policy narratives, combined with new
agricultural practices and markets, make the Songkhram a microcosm of social
forces operating in the Mekong more broadly.
Vietnams Mekong Delta is another microcosm of important social forces.
Chapter 8 by David Biggs and colleagues seeks to understand why certain land-
and water-use policies prevailed over others and how historical patterns of land
development and water use have had an enduring effect in local society and in the
physical environment. The authors trace a transition from strategies of adaptation
to strategies for regional state-driven technological control of the ‘delta machine’.
Technology played a very important role in later reclamation efforts and a culture
of scientifi c positivism still largely animates state plans. The chapter considers
how this historical trajectory of physical remodelling of the delta has created huge
permanent maintenance costs that are likely to increase as sediments are retained
by upstream dams and as sea-level rise threatens the stability of coastal areas. The
allocation of these costs is central to the current political economy of the delta.
Chapter 9 offers another approach to learning from the past as ecological
modellers Juha Sarkkula and colleagues reconstruct the essence of the Mekong
ood pulse system using time series data in order to explore the nexus between
hydropower development and fisheries impacts. The authors explain how
hydropower development changes the natural fl ood pulse and the hydrograph,
directly undermining the productivity of the system by reducing inundated
habitats, delaying the onset of fl ooding and shortening growth periods for aquatic
organisms, with negative impacts upon fi sheries productivity, nutritional security
INTRODUCTION 15
and economic activity for a signifi cant portion of Cambodians, as well as other
populations in the basin. Quantifi cation of fi sheries productivity is diffi cult because
of the complex fl oodplain ecosystem and the diffuse fi sheries. With the pace of
hydropower development quickening, and with potentially damaging hydropower
projects on the Lower Mekong, the authors argue that fi nding an acceptable balance
between dams and productive fi sheries is an urgent issue for the region.
Building on the historical, political and ecological case studies presented above,
Part III offers a set of analytical perspectives that unpack discursive and ideological
dimensions of power and reveal several dimensions of the politics of knowledge.
Chapter 10 by François Molle and colleagues reviews the post-World War
II history of Thai water resources development in Isaan, the northeast region
recurrently cast as overwhelmingly dry, poor, overpopulated, vulnerable to
radicalism, and therefore in need of large-scale interventions to secure it and
make it prosper. The authors offer insight into what they call ‘meta-justifi cations’
powerful, self-evident, overriding rhetoric that has served as a tool of state-building
and elite aggrandizement. Interestingly, they show that both large and small-scale
irrigation projects have been proposed by authorities as preferred solutions during
the past six decades. Despite repeated setbacks and failed implementation, large
projects and basin-scale diversion schemes are perpetuated. They deliver not just
loads of wealth, but symbolic advantages irresistible to those who seek power.
The authors argue that hegemonic discourses of greening Thailand’s Isaan have
endured even though the evolution of the overall national economic context makes
it unlikely that massive injections of capital to grow a second crop of rice (aside
from problems of soil salinity and lack of labour force) are the best way to generate
growth or alleviate poverty.
In Chapter 11 by Louis Lebel and colleagues, the focus shifts to the regions
cities: places such as Bangkok, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, situated in and
expanding into fl ood-prone zones. A shift of focus – but the authors show how
authorities have transformed landscapes by repeated appeal to ‘promises’ no less
ideologically charged than the ones reviewed in the previous chapter. The authors
demonstrate how diffi cult it is to keep all people and roads dry in these areas
since preferred solutions privilege one area over another and inevitably displace
the problem of unwanted water. They argue that better practices are possible,
but require both a stronger state, able to restrict land use, and a more secure and
refl exive state, able to make more realistic and considered promises.
Is this an impossibly tall order for Mekong societies? Chapter 12 by Richard
Friend, Robert Arthur and Marko Keskinen deals with the neglected value of
capture fi sheries, a case that offers the reader further insight into the challenge of
making governance more refl exive. With transformation- and engineering-oriented
mindsets dominant, what are the odds that wild fi sheries can be sustained at a level
meaningful and vibrant enough to offer nutritional security? The authors show that
part of the problem is a policy narrative that casts capture fi sheries as inevitably
in decline as a result of numerous impacts. According to this dominant storyline,
16 CONTESTED WATERSCAPES IN THE MEKONG REGION
capture fi sheries can be conserved, but will play no more than a marginal role in
livelihoods and waterscapes of the future. The authors review empirical weaknesses
in the dominant narrative. The time has come, they argue, for a counter-narrative
in which fi shers and capture fi sheries are recast and reconceptualized as solutions
to, rather than inevitable victims of, regional development challenges.
If dominant ways of thinking are to be challenged by new or better ideas,
then advocates of alternative water futures might fi nd it useful to understand
how certain institutions and ways of knowing bind to and reinforce one another.
Chapter 13 by Mira Käkönen and Philip Hirsch offers such an introduction and
examines how the production and legitimizing of knowledge is closely linked to
interests and power. The example illustrates the role of modelling in the production
of knowledge at the Mekong River Commission, how the World Bank and ADB
interpret and use that knowledge, and how participatory policies eventually further
legitimize rather than challenge it.
Chapter 14 by John Dore and Kate Lazarus offers a governance practitioners’
analysis of the Mekong River Commission, an organization subjected to great effort
and attention from actors intent both on using it and crippling it. The authors
review continuities and contrasts of the MRC from 1999 to 2007, drawing lessons
from water-use negotiations and various basin and strategic planning processes.
The authors argue that the MRC could play an important role as a space in which
action is informed and deliberatively shaped; but in order to do so, its member
states need to use it more actively, rather than bypass it, which, of course, entails
redistribution of authority and revised decision-making processes.
In the concluding chapter, François Molle, Louis Lebel and Tira Foran offer a
synthetic refl ection on water governance in the Mekong region. Two worldviews
are clearly pitted against each other. One worldview is epitomized by the motto
of the Lao official website on hydropower government: ‘Powering Progress’,
which underpins a traditional developmentalist vision that associates capital and
infrastructure investments with growth, and growth with poverty alleviation.
The Mekong region and its ‘exceptional untapped potential’ is seen as ‘ripe’ for
massive investments in hydropower, fl ood control and irrigation infrastructures.
On the other hand, civil society groups operate with a more critical worldview,
which emphasizes the social and environmental costs of transformations, and
how they overwhelmingly benefi t political or economic elites. Current project
planning and implementation in the region tend to confi rm that decision-making
processes are often opaque and offer limited support to the claim that ‘we have
learned from past mistakes’. The authors, however, identify processes that operate
between these two divergent worldviews: from examples presented in the book, the
conclusion presents fi ve ‘pathways’ that have the potential to challenge the process
of knowledge production, instil a culture of negotiation and social learning, lessen
power imbalances, and shift national and regional water governance.
INTRODUCTION 17
NOTES
1 This ‘quite modest’ report (Friesen, 1999) stated that ‘in the immediate future, power
needs could probably best be met by continuing the present programme of addition
small thermal and internal combustion plants as needed, and developing attractive
small hydroelectric or multipurpose sites that may be found near load centres’.
Regarding fl ood control, the report concluded that ‘fl ood control was of doubtful
value except in localized areas’. It noted that ‘most of the offi cials questioned stated
that fl oods were benefi cial to agriculture, fi sh production and high water navigation,
and the fl ood control was of doubtful value except in localized areas’.
2 During the late 1990s, it provided around one quarter of Laos’s foreign exchange
earnings, as well as most of Laos’s domestic electricity (Hirsch, 1998). Yet, if grants
and concessional loans had not paid for its construction, and Japanese aid provided for
its repairs, it is highly doubtful the project would have been profi table (IRN, 1999).
3 This region includes the catchment of the Sesan, Srepok and Sekong rivers.
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INTRODUCTION 19
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