Volume 32
Issue 1
Fall '19

The Sambor Dam: How China’s Breach of Customary International Law Will Affect the Future of the Mekong River Basin

Written By: Lynn Phan

Abstract

The construction of dams along the Mekong River poses a significant threat to the sustainability of the Mekong River Basin. The Mekong Agreement, which governs development on the Mekong River, sets forth the Mekong River Commission’s objectives and priorities; however, it has no binding enforcement mechanism and ultimately defers dispute resolution to the governments of the member states. The Mekong Agreement would be strengthened if the four member states to the Mekong River Commission also ratified the United Nations (“U.N.”) Watercourses Convention. The Mekong Agreement’s inability to enforce and resolve disputes is further weakened by the establishment of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (“LMC”). The LMC has provided China and Cambodia with the opportunity to bypass the obligations set forth in the Mekong Agreement and bilaterally construct the Sambor Dam in Cambodia. If completed, the Sambor Dam would devastate the Mekong River Basin and violate every principle of customary international water law. The Mekong River Commission’s member states could prevent the completion of the Sambor project and similar projects from being constructed in the future by pressuring China to incorporate principles of customary international water law into the LMC’s framework.

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