Transboundary Resource Partnerships, or the International Society of Cat Herding

In early November, I singlehandedly severed trade ties between two nation-states. The scenario was enacted to allow candidates of Virginia Tech’s XMNR program to practice negotiating skills, and the topic at hand was the construction of Laotian dams along the Mekong against the wishes of its neighboring states. I went into the weekend not fathoming how anyone could make a case for construction of a dam, and had even begun drafting my arguments against its construction. However, I was assigned the role of a representative of Laos meeting with regional neighbors, banks, NGOs and other organizations who were concerned about Laotian actions to build two dams along the Mekong River.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is composed of four nations- Lao PDR, Cambodia, Viet Nam and Thailand and works to promote regional cooperation and economic development. China and Myanmar are not members but play a role as stakeholders. To understand the backstory, you should know that many dams are likely to be built along the Mekong. The MRC conducted a study and requested a moratorium on planning or construction of any dam by any nation for a period of ten years. Laos has begun construction of one dam and is in the design stage of a second.

For a single day it became my job to defend construction of the second dam. Through my role as a member of the Laotian government, I started to understand how easy it is to prioritize the desire of health and wealth of one’s people (or oneself) over the environment. There is a tendency to focus on needs first, and to focus on wants later. This concept can be supported by Kuznet’s curve in which economic development increases at the detriment of the environment, but as the economy stabilizes, environmental conditions are allowed to improve. There is also a tendency in human nature to assume that the worst possible outcome of a situation will not really happen to us, even if the odds indicate that the worst thing is likely.

In the case of the Don Sahong Dam, it was easy to argue that the environmental doomsday being presented by other parties was unrealistically bleak. As a poor nation with lower quality of life than most of its neighbors, it was easy to see how Laos could feel no interest in halting plans to help itself out of poverty through the sale of hydropower electricity. It was easy to discount concern for the environment as an obscure concept that can pressure people into caring more about the well-being of a fish (like the Irrawaddy Dolphin or Mekong Catfish) than themselves.

Protests against the Xayaburi Dam, Laos.

Protests against the Xayaburi Dam, Laos.

I found that it was easy to stick to a position in a way that my own character would not. Ultimately, my group of role-playing classmates reached no deal. I believe we all maintained the positions of our representative organizations, and we resisted the urge to cave on behalf of players in a real world scenario.

There is no simple answer to meet every party's desires.  But I tend to believe that to garner voluntary compliance, you must offer a bigger carrot.  The negotiator for a neighboring nation-state offered to assist Laos in development of a renewable energy system that would match the output of the planned dam.  Had I been the true Minister of Energy for Lao PDR, that offer may have compelled me to agree to halting work on the dam.  Economic strength and independence are the fruits of the dam that Laos is seeking, after all.  It's a waste of air to ask a party to acquiesce in a win-lose situation even when stakes aren't so high as poverty alleviation and increased quality of life.  The only chance is to provide a win-win situation for all stakeholders, where everyone walks away from the table with something they want.