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The changing political dynamics of dam building on the Mekong

Philip Hirsch
Professor of Human Geography, School of Geosciences, University of Sydney, NSW, Australia; philip.hirsch@usyd.edu.au

ABSTRACT: This paper explores political dynamics surrounding dam building in the Mekong river basin, prior to, and following, the World Commission on Dams (WCD). Since the 1950s, dam building in the Mekong river basin has been enmeshed in a complex and shifting geopolitical and eco-political landscape. The broad geopolitical sweep of US hegemony, Cold War, regional rapprochement and the rise of China has been superimposed on eco-political shifts between modernist belief in progress as mastery over nature, concerns of global and national environmental movements over dams and their impacts, and a galvanised Mekong environmentalism. During the first decade of the 21st century, mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong have returned to the agenda after having almost disappeared in favour of tributary projects. The growing strength and assertiveness of regional economic players has fundamentally altered the context of energy demand, planning and investment. New sources of finance have relocated the points of political leverage. Environment has been mustered in favour of, as well as in opposition to, dam construction in the contexts of climate-change discourses, protected-area linkage with dam projects, and an industry push for sustainability protocols and certification. Despite the Mekong being one of its focal basins, WCD has not played a prominent role in this transformed arena, yet many of the social and environmental concerns, stakeholder-based processes and safeguard-oriented approaches to hydropower planning that WCD brought to the fore have persisted in the wider ethos of politics around dams in the region.