NST Leader: A game of rivers and dams

Capture An undated CK Power-issued photo shows shows the Xayaburi dam hydro project on a swollen Mekong river in Laos. -AFP pic

05 July 2020 - Source: New Straits Times - THE Earth came with no borders. Rivers do not recognise them. To them, the Earth is one undivided planet. It is we — nations of men — who have divided the planet into this and that land.

Blame it on the Treaty Of Westphalia of 1648. which brought us the concept of sovereign nation states. We are all Westphalians now.

Rivers cannot be divided thus. The Mekong and the Nile tell us why. Take the Mekong first. It starts in the Tibetan Plateau and runs its 4,160km journey through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying its water into the South China Sea. It is Southeast Asia's longest river.

Given the transboundary nature of the Mekong, the people from Myanmar downwards may often have to keep an eye on the weather in China. If a dam breaks in China, people in Myanmar downwards will be damned. So it is no surprise that the Thais, Cambodians and Vietnamese are troubled by Laos' most recent dam project.

While land-locked Laos is fixated on economic benefits, its neighbours are concerned about all the conceivable costs the project brings with it. They have every reason to be. Dams are not unknown to break. And in Laos, a dam breach isn't a surprise. The last time a dam collapsed there was in 2018, causing a devastating deluge that took everyone and everything in its path.

It is not only the nations in Asia which do not know their rivers. Riparian states in Africa too have very little appreciation of them. The Nile, the world's longest river, which feeds Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan, tells us why.

Ethiopia is building a mega dam with a design capacity of 6,000 megawatts, though it needs only half the capacity. Like Laos, it is thinking of selling the excess capacity to its neighbours. Egypt, if not Sudan, sees the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, as it is called, as an existential threat. It may not be exaggerating.

Egypt is worried that the dam will turn the flow of the Nile into a trickle, especially during droughts. Droughts are not uncommon there. Ethiopia thinks the dam and the economic benefits it is expected to bring will lift the country out of poverty. As the completion date for the dam nears, tempers are rising between the neighbours. Like the Asian neighbours, the three African states must learn to share the Nile.

Countries where the rivers begin or cross must learn to allow enough water for their neighbours downstream. Otherwise, it will turn into a tragedy of the commons. Water, like air, is a resource held in common. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which oversees the dam construction on the lower Mekong, may offer a model for the African trio to adopt.

The MRC is funded by international agencies and Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Shared resources, such as rivers, do need a body like MRC to ensure that disputes do not turn into wars. MRC may not have the legal standing of an international treaty — its decisions are at times disregarded — but at least the commission provides an avenue to discuss shared interests.

Though it may be a little late for the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam to have a three-nation commission, Ethiopia, Egypt and Sudan will be well advised to try the model. It may just arrive at an arrangement that works well for all three.

Myanmar Water Journal - June 2020
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