On October 29, 2019 Laos kickstarted the operation of the Xayaburi Dam to be followed soon afterward by that of the Don Sahong Dam. Those two hydroelectric dams that straddle the Mekong’s main current also represent a bone of contention for the countries downstream of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Another noteworthy news coming out of the Mekong River Commissìon indicated that Laos was about to introduce the PNPCA process for the Luang Prabang hydropower Dam (1,410 MW) located 30 km from Luang Prabang. Barring unexpected events, construction works for the Luang Prabang Dam are scheduled to begin in July, 2020. Doctor Ngô Thế Vinh, an expert on the Mekong, has authored the two books “The Nine Dragons Drained Dry, The East Sea in Turmoil” and “Mekong - the Occluding River.” He also wrote articles pertaining to the Luang Prabang Project and the role Vietnam played in it.  In this interview with reporter Thanh Trúc, he further elaborates on his view pertaining to this issue.

Photo 1: Vietnam, victim and accomplice at the same time. The meeting between the Chairman of PetroVietnam Mr. Nguyễn Quốc Khánh and Laos’ Minister of Energy and Mines on June 13, 2016. The real brain behind the project is neither the Lao Minister nor the Chairman of PetroVietnam but Mr. Viraphonh Viravong standing second from right in the photo. Mr. Viravong has no Vietnamese equal and stands as the undisputed giant in the hydroelectric field of Laos. [source: PetroVietnam 2016] (1)

Thanh Trúc1_ Dr Vinh, 12 years ago, in 2007, Vietnam gave the green light to the state-owned  PVPC / PetroVietnam Power Corporation to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Vientiane government authorizing PVPC to invest in  the construction of the Luang Prabang Dam, the biggest dam in Laos. Do you think this represents an inconsistency on the part of the Vietnamese when they continue to object to Laos’ plan to build 9 dams on the Mekong River’s main current?  Can you also comment on the article you authored entitled Vietnam is Suffering a Strategic Setback at the Mekong River Battlefront”?

NGÔ THẾ VINH 1_ For a long time, Vietnam has voiced its concerns about the hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong River’s main current that runs from China to the two countries of Laos and Cambodia because of the negative transboundary impacts they visited on the Mekong Delta. The Vietnamese government oftentimes called on Laos to “supend for 10 years” the construction of the Xayaburi and other dams on the main current. Most recently, it has also proposed to replace hydroelecticity with renewable clean energy in the Mekong Basin in order to achieve a “sustainable conservation and exploitation of the resources of the water in the Mekong River while at the same time avoid the detrimental impacts on the livelihood of the inhabitants along the river banks.

That’s the official stand. However, since 2007 or even earlier, Vietnam has conceived plans to build several hydroelectric dams in Laos including the Luang Prabang Hydroelectric Dam Project. That dam being the largest of the 9 dams to be built on the Mekong River’s main current in Laos.  The investment cost of that project is estimated at US$ 2 billion at the current price. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for the Luang Prabang Hydroelectric Dam Project was signed in 2007 between state-owned PVPC / PetroVietnam Power Corporation and the Lao government. 

It should be noted that over the years, PVPC did not show a good track record in its operation. Its reputation has been tainted by scandals concerning its involment in the Xekaman 1 Dam and 3 others in the south of Laos. Their poor performance has resulted in devastating impacts on the inhabitants of the affected areas. (7)

More than everybody else, Hanoi knows very well that the Mekong Delta, the rice bowl of the country that lies at the main current’s mouth, will suffer the full weight of the accumulative transboundary detrimental impacts caused by the dams upstream in regards to the water source, alluvial flow, fishery, not to mention the brackish water encroachment resulting from global climate change. The situation will be rendered worse with the reduced flow of fresh water coming from upstream the Mekong River. Furthermore, when the alluvial inflow runs out, the Mekong Delta will go through a regressive process: instead of a build up it will undergo collapse and disintegration. The British reporter Tom Fawthrop became utterly appalled when he learned that the Lao government recently informed the MRC of its intention to proceed with the construction of the Luang Prabang Dam whose main investor is state-owned PetroVietnam Power Corporation. This decision will inevitably render the lives of the 20 million inhabitants in the Mekong Delta more miserable.

Over the years, Mr. Lê Anh Tuấn PhD, Deputy Director, Research Institute for Climate Change (DRAGON Institute Mekong), Cần Thơ University, has been intimately committed to the Mekong’s future.  In no uncertain terms, he voiced his strong opposition to the Luang Prabang Project:

“It is a very bad thing if a Vietnamese state-owned company joins to invest [in] any hydropower project in the Mekong mainstream. This fact has to be considered as a serious complicating action, leading quickly to the destruction of the ecosystems and the life in the Lower Mekong River Delta. The Vietnamese officials who concurred with the decision to cooperate in the construction of the Luang Prabang hydropower project, must bear historical and political responsibility to the Vietnamese people.”

However, in the eye of observers informed in Vietnamese affairs, the moment Hanoi signed with Laos the Memorandum of Understanding 2007 for the Luang Prabang Hydroelectric Dam Project, it practically gives Laos the green light to build its series of 9 hydroelectric dams on the Mekong River’s main current. The Lao leaders have correctly understood that from 2007 onward, for all practical purpose, any protestation on Vietnam’s part is only shameless lip service. Moreover, it is an open secret that the Hanoi government is under the influence of Mafia-like interest groups that control the state-owned companies. A case in point is PetroVietnam Power Corporation that showed a long history of corruption resulting in indictments and incarceration of its top executives.

All programs or projects with investment costs amounting to thousands of billions of piasters earmarked for domestic or foreign markets are controlled by interest groups. They wreak havoc to the nation’s economy to the detriment of the longterm benefits and survival of the people… It can be concluded that they serve not the interests of the Vietnamese people but those of government leaders tainted by corruption thus witless and acquiescent when dealing with Laos’ hydroelectric master plan.

Thanh Trúc2_In July, 2019 Laos has officially submitted to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) the file pertaining to its project to build the Luang Prabang hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River’s main current. At that time, you stated that this is the “Domino Number 5”. Could you elaborate on the “chain reaction” impacts of that dam?  

NTV2_ Back in 2010, I observed that if one could not postpone the construction of the Xayaburi Dam for at least a decade, this “First Domino” to fall will open the floodgate for the building of other dams downstream of the Mekong River’s main current. In such a case, it would be impossible to evaluate their immediate and longterm negative impacts on the entire ecosystem of that river and the Mekong Delta. The Xayaburi is the first dam built downstream the Mekong River’s main current. It is 350 km north of the capital Vientiane; 770 km from the Jinhong, the southernmost dam, in the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades of China; and 150 km south of  Luang Prabang. Xayaburi ranks as one of the 300 large dams in the world.

In May, 2007 the Lao government signed a contract with Ch. Karnchang, a Thai company, to implement the Xayaburi Dam Project. Then, in November, 2008 the Swiss company AF Colenco entered into collaboration with a Thai consultant group to conduct the feasibility study of the dam. Three years later, in July, 2010 the Lao government officially signed an agreement with  EGAT/ Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand to sell the electricity generated by the Xayaburi dam to Thailand. The following year, in April, 2011 the MRC Joint Committee issued a press release to the effect the member countries had not reached a consensus to start the implementation of the Xayaburi project. Last, In June, 2011 in spite of the fact that the member countries were still unable to arrive at an appropriate agreement, the Lao government unilaterally gave the “green light” to the Thai company Ch. Karnchang to go ahead with the Xayaburi Project.

Laos’ action marks the start of a crisis of trust in the regional effort of the member nations to protect the ecosystem of the Mekong River. It also turns the spotlight on the flagrant violations on Laos’ part of the Agreement on the Cooperation  for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995 whose Article 7 specifically states: “the contracting parties agree to make every effort to avoid, minimize and mitigate harmful effects that might occur to the environment…from the development and use of the Mekong River Basin water resources.”

The Xayaburi dam triggered the Domino effect. You can picture the situation when a line of dominoes standing erect in succession one after the other. When the first in line falls it will cause the next one to follow suit. That process will repeat itself to the last one. Xayaburi is that very first Domino because its construction could not be delayed for at least a decade until the year 2020 as recommended by the MRC. Since then, we witness a series of hydroelectric dams being built downstream like Don Sahong, Pak Beng, Pak Lay and soon to be followed by the Luang Prabang. Their accumulative impacts on the ecosystem of the Mekong River and the Mekong Delta will be extremely grave if not tragic.

Picture 2: Luang Prabang will be the 5th and also the biggest dam built in Laos. The irony of it all is that state-owned PetroVietnam Power Corporation is the lead investor. Xayaburi, the first Domino, the first dam built on the main current in Laos went into production on October 29, 2019 at a time when the river is running dry with 11 dams operating upstream of the Lancang-Mekong. The dams’ reservoirs in China have retained 42 billion m3 of water, over 50% of the alluvial and produced 21,300 MW of electricity. Laos has retained 33 billion m3 of water of the river’s annual flow to realize its dream of becoming “S.E. Asia’s Battery” mindless of the transboundary ecological impacts it causes to the two downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam. [source:Michael Buckley, updated by Ngô Thế Vinh in 2019].

Thanh Trúc
3_ Doctor, in the opinion of Professor Vũ Trọng Hồng, former Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, it is unrealistic to ask a country like Laos that “has only forests and water” to put a stop to its building of hydroelectric dams.  The thing one can aim for is to propose measures to reduce the risks to Vietnam, in particular the Mekong Delta.  What do you think of this point of view?

NTV3_ Probably, before Doctor Vũ Trọng Hồng, there was also a Vietnamese member of longstanding in the MRC and still wielding an influential voice in the Vietnam River Network who held the same argument. She also claims that Laos is the poorest country in SouthEast Asia in contrast to Vietnam that has been benefiting from the Mekong’s alluvial to produce 2 million tons of rice per year not to mention the fish and shrimps used for export. Meanwhile, Laos only has “forests and water” from its rivers. Consequently, one cannot prevent Laos from constructing hydroelectric dams on the sections of the Mekong that run within its boundary… Doctor Vũ Trọng Hồng is rather ill-advised when he takes the oversimplified view that Laos is “a nation that has only forests and water [sic] when this country, in fact, possesses an economy and ecosystem with resources that are quite varied. By itself, the Mekong River offers a habitat for one of the richest fisheries of the world that also supplies the main protein source for the Laotians. In addition, this river provides the needed alluvial to the agricultural activities along its banks. Laos claims a self-sufficient agricultural base with rice growing as its main production with a rising productivity thanks to the introduction of new rice species and water irrigated from the Mekong River. Rice production is also partially mechanized. On top of that, Laos inherits a rich history and culture, a diversified ecosystem with extremely beautiful landscapes that remain the driving forces behind its fast expanding tourism industry. In 2015 alone, 4.7 million tourists visited this country bringing with them a significant amount of foreign exchanges. It is projected that in 2020 the tourism sector will contribute US$ 1.5 billion to Laos’ national budget. We cannot neglect the counltless jobs being created to service the tourism sector. The building of additional dams on the Mekong River’s main current, especially the Luang Prabang Dam, will destroy the many extremely beautiful landscapes peculiar to Laos. Luang Prabang designated a World Heritage Site that is attracting millions of tourists will also be affected – this is the equivalent of slaying the goose that lays the golden egg.

Picture 3: The construction site projected for the Luang Prabang Dam (1,410 MW) on the Mekong’s main current, north of the Xayaburi Dam, and only 25 km from Luang Prabang; the above photo shows the section of the Mekong that flows by the old capital Luang Prabang that was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. This city acclaimed as one of the most beautiful old cities in SouthEast Asia is now being commercialized and Sinicized. Cultivation along the river banks using the alluvial from the Mekong River remains a traditional family farming practice of the Laotians. [Source: photo 2000 by Ngô Thế Vinh]

The original forests in Laos with all their precious wood continue to be ravaged. They formerly covered 70% of the country’s area but now is reduced to less than 40%. According to a WWF report: the illegal cutting down of trees is carried out with the collusion between the corrupt generals of the Vietnamese People Army and their Lao counterparts. The logs are then transported across the border to the port city of Quy Nhơn in Vietnam for export. The profits that amount to billions of US Dollars, however, never reach the pockets of the Laotian people.    

The water in the Mekong River and its tributaries coupled with the mountainous topography of Laos are ideal for a sizable production of hydroeclectricity. With a potential output estimated at 18,000 MW, hydroelectricity represents an important source of revenue for Laos. Very early on, since 1971, this country has completed the building of its first hydroelectric dam Nam Ngum on a tributary of the Mekong River.  Its initial output of 30 MW was later raised to 155 MW and is destined for domestic use as well as export to Thailand.

From October, 2014 to date, the hydroelectric dams in Laos have generated approximately 15.5 billion kWh. Of that total, almost 12.5 billion kWh were exported bringing in over US$ 610 million. The main foreign users of Laos’ electricity are Thailand and Vietnam.  The majority of Laos’ dams in operation or in the process of being built are located on the Mekong River’s tributaries. At the present time, Laos has completed the building of two additional dams on the Mekong River’s main current. They are the Xayaburi and Don Sahong.

Picture 4: Nam Ngum is the first hydroelectric dam built in Laos in 1971. The banderole hung across the length of the dam commemorates the 25th anniversary of the country’s independence 1975-2000. [source: photo 2000 by Ngô Thế Vinh]

According to the website of the Department of Energy and Mine of Laos there are currently in this country 22 hydroelectric dams in operation, 22 being built and tens of new projetcs under consideration. Hydroelectricity provides considerable economic benefits to Laos through its export to Thailand and Vietnam.

Laos is also the recipient of numerous development aids from the IMF, ADB and a number of other international sources. Moreover, this country is very rich in natural resources i.e. coal, gold, bauxite, tin, copper and other precious metals.

Laos vital statistics are quite modest: total area: 236.800 km2, climate: tropical monsoon, population: 7.1 million in 2019 (about 1/3 that of the Mekong Delta), population density: 29.5/ km2.

Mr. Phạm Đỗ Chí PhD., economic expert, longtime resident in Laos, first served as advisor to the ADB / Asian Development Bank then became representative of IMF / International Monetary Fund. According to him, the average per capita income of Laos for the period 2017-2018 is higher than Vietnam’s. It is ranked in descending order: Laos, Bolivia, India and Vietnam. [statistics of the IMF & WB 3/2019].

List of Countries by GDP (PPP) per capita, IMF & World Bank. (3)

To state that Laos is the poorest country in SouthEast Asia is simply a myth, a stigma attributed to that country that no longer has any basis on facts. The above mentioned statistics surely will shock many Hanoi’s intellectuals and awaken the Vietnamese leaders.

[A side note: looking at the overall geopolitical map, with its expansionist One Belt One Road Initiative, China is using Laos as a passageway to make an inroad into Vietnam. To achieve that goal, Beijing dangles the prospects of FDI / Foreign Direct Investment and special economic zones. The Chinese have become the main political force that controls the economy of Laos. They are the stakeholders in 13 special economic zones in this country including the GTSEZ / Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone with an area of 10.000 ha. Unlike ordinary economic zones, the ones funded by Beijing do not employ local workers. The latters come either from China or other countries. This policy assuredly does not help increase the average per capita income of the populations in the host contries. The whole situation has moved Paul Chambers, director of research at the Institute of South East Asian Affairs in Chiang Mai, Thailand to observe: “Northern Laos is sort of becoming a neo-China.” The country of Laos is being “tibetanized” by China.]

Thanh Trúc4_ Professor Vũ Trọng Hồng in Vietnam asserted that though we cannot ask other countries to stop building hydroelectric dams, the important thing Vietnam must do is to refocus its strategy for agricultural production as well as to try to conserve water during the Dry Season. Do you think those two suggestions are feasible in Vietnam’s case? Furthermore, what measures does Vietnam need to carry out to reduce the undesirable impacts?

NTV4_ Doctor Vũ Trọng Hồng once served as the Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. To say that we cannot ask other countries to stop building hydroelectric dams does not mean to give carte blanche to Laos to do whatever it wishes. Laos has an obligation to observe the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995. On the other hand, Vietnam also has the same obligation to sageguard the survival of the Mekong Delta and its 20 million inhabitants as well as the food security of the entire region. With the implementation of their 4 dam projects: Xayaburi, Don Sahong, then Pak Beng, Pak Lay, and the soon to come Luang Prabang, Laos has demonstrated its penchant to take unilateral and arbitrary actions brushing aside all the concerns of the other member countries in the MRC.

With this unmistakably defeatist attitude vis a vis Laos, doctor Vũ Trọng Hồng now shifts all burden on the shoulders of the almost 20 million inhabitants of the Mekong Delta when he asserted: “[Vietnam] must refocus its strategy for agricultural production as well as try to conserve water during the Dry Season” [sic] we have heard the same slogans coming from the leaders of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in the past. Among them is Mr. Vũ Trọng Hồng the former Deputy Minister.

However, the question one must pose is: no matter how we refocus the strategy for agricultural production, it is up to the people in the Mekong Delta to figure it out and adapt. To ask the people to conserve water during the Dry Season is fine. But where can they get the water to conserve? When the underground aquifers are being intensively exploited to the point of near exhaustion entailing the phenomena of land subsidence; when the two lowland Rectangles of natural water at Long Xuyên and Đồng Tháp Mười are no longer around; when the Tonle Sap Lake, the heart of Cambodia and the Mekong Delta, is suffering from water penury due to low flood pulse from upstream during the Rainy Season preventing the Tonle Sap River to reverse course and flow into the Tonle Sap Lake. Then, we must remind ourself of the many detrimental projects implemented by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development: the Quản Lộ-Phụng Hiệp irrigation project, the Fresh Water Project in the Cà Mau peninsula, and the Ba Lai Irrigation Project all resulted in regrettable fiascoes. The remarkable thing is that in their aftermath not a single person stepped out to accept responsibility and no lesson was learned.

Notwithstanding the many pertinent cautions and dissuasions raised by independent and reputable experts from the Mekong Delta, very soon the so called “project of the century” - the  Cái Lớn-Cái Bé irrigation project - with a price tag in the thousands of billion will be implemented. When the voice coming from interest groups and investors prove overpowering, any resolutions passed by the government are not worth the paper they are printed on and the government itself will be forced to beat a strategic retreat.   

Picture 5: The hydroelectric dam Xayaburi, the first dam built on the main current in Laos went into operation on 10. 29.2019. It caused the section of the Mekong River that runs south of the dam to run the risk of being drained dry, and the immediate victims are the inhabitants of the cities and towns in northern Thailand and Laos located on the river banks of the Mae Nam Khong, the Lao and Thai name of the Mekong River. [source: RFA/ CK Power / AFP](5)

Thanh Trúc5_ Let’s go back to Xayaburi, all dispute aside, the hydroelectric dam Xayaburi was built and started to run since the 29th of October. The important  question is as the Dry Season turns into the Rainy one, China will start retaining a huge quantity of water from the Mekong River in their dams’ reservoirs. How can Xayaburi have enough water to operate?

NTV5_ For all the inhabitants of the Mekong Basin, the date October 29, 2019 when the hydroelectric dam Xayaburi in Laos first went into operation at the time its section of the Mekong River was almost drained dry did come as a momentous news. And the question that came to their mind was where can you find sufficient water to run its turbines and go into full production?

The dams located at the northernmost part of Laos like Pak Beng, Luang Prabang, Xayaburi, Pak Lay… are almost totally dependent on the water  flowing down from the Lancang-Mekong in Yunnan for their operation since their section of the Mekong River has not received any water from its large tributaries within Laos yet. Therefore, as China retains the Mekong River’s water in the reservoirs of its dams – most notably the Jinhong Dam – there would obviously not be enough water for the Xayaburi’s turbines to run to full capacity. Obviously, this is an uncertain investment for Laos.  

The Don Sahong Dam will face the same situation when its turbines begin to run at the end of the current year. This is certainly an awakening call for Laos as this country is embarking on new dam projects such as the Luang Prabang – so far the largest dam in Laos whose investor is Vietnam, the country that sits at the very mouth of the Mekong River.

Thanh Trúc 6_ Some people believe that China has succeeded in its effort to “blackmail” the countries downstream by using water as its “trump card.” Do you think that the collaboration among those countries has born any fruits?

NTV 6_ More than a decade ago, when writing about the series of dams in the Yunnan Cascades built along half of the Mekong’s length within China  and the negative impacts they visit on the countries downstream, I have mentioned an ecological warfare which may trigger a military conflict over the control of water. That threat is a real possibility. At the present time, 11 dams on the main current of the Lancang-Mekong have been completed of which the two biggest dams Nuozhadu (5,850 MW) and Xiaowan (4,200 MW) are operating at full capacity. In general, we can say that China has achieved the objectives of its hydroelectricity program with 40 billion m3 of water contained in the dams’ reservoirs, over 50% of the alluvial retained upstream, plus the Made in China hydroelectric dams downstream in Laos and Cambodia. Beijing  has all the weapons it needs to wield a Damoclean Sword over the entire Mekong Basin.

Not only that, among the 4 countries downstream Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam there always exist deep latent conflicts of interest in their programs to exploit the Mekong River as they adhere to a narrow-minded nationalist approach.

It would not be easy to overcome that hurdle if they do not agree to a common denominator: a determination to protect the river as a lifeline for the entire basin – in other words a “Spirit of the Mekong” that calls for an open dialogue nurturing mutual trust as well as a concerted effort to take prudent steps toward a sustainable development for the whole region. The Mekong must be seen as a crimson thread that unites not a bone of contention. The thing Beijing desires to see the most is disunity among the Mekong nations. It can easily subdue one Mekong nation at a time but not all of them at once. In the current situation, of the 3 former Indochinese countries, Cambodia and Laos are distancing themselves from Vietnam to fall into China’s orbit. 

Thanh Trúc 7_ Doctor, as far as you know, how much progress have the American and Japanese assistance programs for countries in the lower Mekong basin achieved so far?

NTV 7_ Japan’s assistance programs for the Lower Mekong Basin have been consistent and considerable over the past decades. They are offered through ODA / Official Development Assistance and JICA / Japan International Cooperation Agency to build infrastructures like the network of roads and highways, hospitals, schools, including the large bridges straddling the Mekong River like the Nippon-Champasak Bridge (2000) in Laos,  the Kampong Cham Bridge (2001) in Cambodia, the Cần Thơ Bridge (2008) in the Mekong Delta Vietnam. Those are the big projects funded by Japan from Laos, to Cambodia then all the way to Vietnam.

On the American side, in the post Vietnam War years (after 1975), SouthEast Asia no longer remained an area of interest to Washington. It was not until 2009 that this country showed a policy shift with the introduction of the Lower Mekong Initiative 2020 (LMI) by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. In it, she introduced a very constructive proposition: set up the “The Mekong River Commission and Mississippi River Commission Sister-River Partnership” to allow for the sharing of technical experience and know-how in areas like: adaptation to climate change, coping with the impacts those two rivers cause to the ecosystem. The two Mississippi and Mekong Commissions pledge to coopereate and promote a stable development of hydroelectricy, deal with floods and droughts, coordinate the management of water resources and food safety, improve waterways and expand riverine trade…

Ten years have since gone by, the LMI 2020 failed to achieve much concrete progress, it still remains a symbolic gesture with a funding level neither commensurate with its scope nor the needs of the countries in the basin. Recently, Secretary of State Pompeo, in the Ministerial Meeting in Bangkok in August, 2019 also refered to the American and Japanese commitments to cooperate with the countries in the Mekong Basin to cope with the challenges they are facing. He also proposed the building of a power grid in the region funded by [JUMP/ Japan-U.S. Mekong Power Partnership]. The United States will contribute US$ 29.5 million to the project. In a ddition, the American government will work with the US Congress to allocate another US$ 14 million to help the Mekong countries fight human trafficking, stop the trade in wild animals and opium flowing out of the Golden Triangle.  Those are humanitarian assistances in nature. However from a strategic standpoint they remain modest and disparate.

Considering the enormous amount of money the Chinese invested to further their goals, one can conclude that U.S. response has been “inadequate” in the face of a growing expansionist policy from Beijing. China is enjoying the upper hand in the Mekong Basin vis a vis the U.S. in many respects. One cannot help but wonder: what is the American strategic stand in the Mekong River chessboard and to a larger extent the East Sea? A lack of strategic substance, an absence of a coherent and persistent policy on the part of America: that is the fact of life over the years of the Lower Mekong Initiative 2020.

Picture 6: The Kampong Cham Bridge, (1.4 km in length and US$ 56 million in cost) inaugurated in April, 2001. The first bridge in Cambodia built on the Mekong River’s main current and financed by Japan non refundable aid. [photo 2001 by Ngô Thế Vinh] 

Thanh Trúc 8_ As a researcher of long standing of the Mekong River  you have often sounded the alarm, what do you think is the magic wand to help resolve the challenges and bring the Mekong back to its healthy former self?

NTV 8_ The Lao government would be well served to ponder the case of    Colombia’s hydroelectricity (1) that is now falling into difficult time eventhough it has known its golden days in decades past. Nowadays, it unexpectedly is reduced to a state of near lethargy as a result of its destructive impacts on the ecosystem, rising operating costs, diminished revenues due to outdated technology. 

To directly answer your question about finding a remedy to the threats facing the Mekong River and the gridlock plaguing the hydroelectricity sector, the solution can be found in clean energy from the wind and sun – This is the trend of the future for the world. Even “China, the King of Hydroelectricity” is making energetic transition from thermal to seemingly unlimited clean renewable energy. The latter’s low production cost presents a challenge to hydroelectricity that is associated with extremely high maintenance costs not to mention the social, ecological burdens the inhabitants of the basin must endure. 

In the opinion of Mr. Phạm Phan Long, P.E., Viet Ecology Foundation, the idea of using floating solar panels to generate energy on the dam reservoirs like the Nam Ngum Dam in Laos, the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia promise to be very practicable replacements for the hydroelectricity dams on the main current like Pak Lay, Pak Beng, Luang Prabang in Laos and Sambor, Stung Treng in Cambodia. Engineer Phạm Phan Long, P.E., has done the preliminary research on the new floating solar panels project and advocated their construction in his recent article “Can Nam Ngum solar replace Mekong hydro in Laos?  (4) published recently in the PV Magazine.  Soon after, the article was republished in the Mekong Eye issue of 5.11.2019 serving as a forum about the basin. This is a new beam of hope offering a potential breakthrough to save the Mekong River from the harness of hydroelectricity so that this Mother River can remain the lifeline to the millions of Laotians, Thai, Cambodians, and Vietnamese living downstream including the Mekong Delta.

Thanh Trúc 9_A last hypothetical question. Do you think Vietnam is forceful enough to cancel its investment and prevent Laos from building the Luang Prabang Dam? 

NTV 9_ To cancel the Luang Prabang Dam Project and impose a moratorium of 10 years on the construction of all mainstream dams on the Mekong until 2030 present both a challenge and a historical opportunity for Hanoi to act promptly. And it must.

However, in the present state of affairs, the Vietnamese government is under the thumb of interest groups in one hand and surrounded by impractical advisors in the other. It either acts out of self interests or lack of longterm strategic foresight. In chorus, the Vietnamese leaders repeat the mantra: if Laos cannot be prevented from building hydroelectric dams then Vietnam has no choice but invest in the Luang Prabang Dam Project else China is ready to jump in.  When Vietnam builds the Luang Prabang Dam it can gain control of the construction, operating process, as well as the right to purchase the generated output from Laos [sic]. If Vietnam continues to boycott the project it relinquishes to China the full control of Laos’ hydroelectricity.

This is also the argument voiced by Mr. Lê Công Thành, Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and Permanent Vice Chairman of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, in the Seminar on national consultation on the Luang Prabang Project for hydroelectricity on the main current in Laos [4/11/2019] held in Saigon. The Deputy Minister stated:

“The decision of the Vietnamese enterprises to invest in the hydroelectric Luang Prabang Dam in Laos will help us gain the initiative, on the very first day, in the selection of the design, construction, operation of the project and its multi-faceted regulatory control. Through it, we can lessen the impacts of not only this project but also of the combination of other hydroelectricity projects on the Mekong River’s main current.” (6)    

This is a dangerous form of fallacious argument coupled with a strategic misjudgment since it endangers the survival of the 20 million people in the Mekong Delta and also over 10 million Cambodians who live on the banks of the Tonle Sap Lake. A grave mistake in principle as well as in policy. Eventhough the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995 relieves Vietnam and the member countries of their veto power, Laos still has the obligation to observe the three-stage PNPCA: (1) Procedures for Notification, (2) Prior Consultation, (3) Agreement that it has signed to preserve the Mekong River as a lifeline for the entire basin. To this day, it is apparent for all to see that the PNPCA is only a formality lacking both in clarity and effectiveness. It shows little concern for the civil society organizations and the impacted communities living along the river banks. It is always the investors who have the last words.  We must acknowledge that the Vietnam National Mekong Committee has played a very passive and nondescript role in this PNPCA process.

Photo 7: Still deep in its Winter slumber, still entrenched at its absurd office address (23 Hàng Tre Street, Hanoi) for so many years, the Vietnam National Mekong Committeeworks out of its office in the Hong River Delta which is 1,600 km away from the Mekong Delta. Too distant to hear the desperate cry for help from a dying Mekong Delta. [source: private collection of Ngô Thế Vinh, photo by LN Hà]

What is surprising: during the war, there was nothing that could constraint the Vietnamese communist leaders. In their pursuit of the war, they were willing to violate the territory of Cambodia and Laos and set up a war corridor in those two neighboring countries. Nevertheless, during peace time, they become feckless showing no political determination to fight for the just interests of the people.  They have no qualms in surrending the country to interest groups.

Will Vietnam withdraw its participation in the Luang Prabang Project?  You’re right, this is a hypothetical question. But it does not mean that it is not conceivable. Do not forget that we now have an alternative in the clean renewable energy from the sun and wind to replace hydroelectricity.

Considering the state of the existing political institutions, it would neither be the Vietnam National Mekong Committee nor a Ministry in the government, but a single minded Politburo in Hanoi that can save the Mekong Delta. This Politburo needs to adopt a strategic outlook for the whole region and force the MRC’s hand to fulfill its international duty as stipulated by the spirit of the Agreement on the Cooperation  for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin 1995 in order to preserve the Mekong River as a lifeline for the 70 million inhabitants of the basin and guarantee the safety of the world’s food supply as well.

The interview conducted by email with RFA Reporter Thanh Trúc

Washington DC – California,  November 11, 2019



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