We are nearing a decade since the eminent World Commission on Dams was published in 2000. Its overall consensus was that large dams (over fifteen meters high) are ill considered and ultimately deleterious to the ecological system they are built in. Despite the consensus, with the demand for clean energy exponentially rising, the number of prospective large-scale dam projects along the Mekong and its tributaries is increasing. Riparian governments ignoring the World Commission’s recommendations and assessment tools will ultimately be responsible for the consequences of exploiting the river. As a result, local people whose livelihoods are disrupted from the impacts may learn, albeit brutally, the importance of democratic institutionalism. It will be up to them to hold those responsible, accountable.

If there’s a way to practically object to damming, it is through the empowerment of people in the prospective dam’s vicinity. There are at least sixty million people living in the Mekong river basin. That’s a lot of individuals potentially for democratic empowerment. Without riparian citizens of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam uniting to really object to dam construction, it’s highly unlikely that dams won’t be built.

Australian tax payers contribute AU $13 million per year to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an organisation dedicated to ‘sustainable development’, promoting and generating ‘knowledge’ of the Mekong River Basin. Australian’s consequently have a vested interest in the success of the MRC and associated development programmes.

On 12 February 2010, Oxfam Australia and AusAID held a public roundtable dialogue at the ACT Legislative Assembly to discuss hydroelectric dams and Australia’s involvement in Mekong related affairs. There was a lovely snacks table. As per usual, the implications for food security, fisheries, settlement relocation and legacy were bleated out by cultural livelihood misanthropes from NGOs. Not that what the self-agrandising misanthropes were talking about isn’t important, but it didn’t strike me as practical. It seemed to be more about pleading for donations to patch up peoples lives… or their own lives.

Bureaucrats in Canberra clique attire discussed the roles of their institutions in powerpoint form, the positive and negative impacts, what is to be supported and what is not. It was good to hear what the bureaucrats had to say, but like the NGO misanthropes, it was very much to do with the discussions that they were to have with the MRC and didn’t seem particularly pragmatic as bureaucratic status quo demands.

And Milton Osborne was there looking on. It was good to shake his hand.

What wasn’t discussed was the capacity of people to adapt and grow. That seemed to me to be the most pressing issue unaddressed at this meeting. To have a practical Australian regional plan for capacity development now, so as to better implement it when the decisions to build ridiculously large dams on both mainstream and tributaries wreak their harrowing disruption upon the misanthropes’ photogenic innocents. Perhaps that sort of plan is not for public discussion. It might be antagonistic for basin governments if Australia developed the capacity of their people.

They might very well be Australians soon though. A refugee influx from the basin region with the advent of the cumulative impacts from the dams doesn’t seem so ridiculous. I wonder what Joe Nguyen thinks in the Delta?

What seemed sustainable at the meeting was the trade offs contemplated by bureaucrats. I imagine those trade offs will always be there in one form or another.

What seemed unsustainable was the static view of NGO ‘activists’ who maintain their images of tragedy to fly back on thousand dollar tickets to Southeast Asia from Canberra.

Some of that tax or air-ticket money could’ve contributed towards building schools in an effected region. The motto for the schools could be: “If, in our everyday lives, we know what is the right thing to do, why don’t we do more of it?” If students from those schools who had internalised this motto then immigrated, they’d surely be valuable examples for Australian sustainable development.