BOOK CHAPTER: “Arenas of Water Justice on Transboundary Rivers: A Case Study of the Xayaburi Dam, Laos"

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Publication date:
November 2016

Water Governance Dynamics in the Mekong Region

Carl Middleton and Ashley Pritchard

David J.H. Blake and Lisa Robins

Download the chapter here


In Southeast Asia, major transboundary rivers such as the Mekong River are central to the food security, livelihoods and culture of millions of people. An increasingly extensive program of large hydropower dam construction is underway in Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar to meet domestic electricity demand and for power export to neighboring Thailand, Vietnam and China.  How the concept of justice in water governance should be understood and applied to transboundary rivers is increasingly the subject of critical analysis, including with regard to human rights-based approaches (HRBA). For example, even as the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses (the International Watercourse Law) entered into force in August 2014, how it relates to international human rights law remains poorly understood despite a growing recognition of the relationship between the environment and human rights. 

The purpose of this chapter is to examine how processes of decision making on transboundary rivers around large hydropower dams have been challenged within “arenas of water justice” in Southeast Asia. The paper focuses in particular on a human rights-based approach (HRBA). In the following section, a HRBA to large hydropower dams is discussed from the perspective of international human rights law, recognizing that rights are also fundamentally a social relationship and therefore bound up within power relations. The chapter proposes “arenas of water justice” as a heuristic approach to analyze the politicized spaces of transboundary water governance in which a process for claiming and/or defending the right to water and the environment or seeking redress for human rights violations take place. It discusses recent developments in international regimes, namely the International Watercourse Law, human rights and corporate accountability. In the second half of the chapter, the arenas of water justice approach is applied to a case study of the Xayaburi Dam, which is a heavily contested project now under construction on the Mekong River’s mainstream in northern Laos. The chapter concludes by arguing that transboundary arenas of water justice and the associated extra-territorial obligations implicit to them will become increasingly significant, not only in the context of large hydropower dams on transboundary rivers in Southeast Asia, but more widely as the region proceeds to economically integrate under the ASEAN Economic Community.