Dam builders line up again to tame the Mekong

Posted: 6 September 2007

The magnificent Mekong River, life-blood of Southeast Asia,is under renewed pressure from governments, banks and foreign investors, who are keen to build yet more dams to boost the region's energy supply. But that could severely damage one of the world's most productive fisheries, providing the 60 million people of the river basin with around 80 per cent of their protein needs and much the their vital calcium. Here Aviva Imhof explains the threat the people of the river are facing and introduces extracts from a special report by the International River Network (IRN).

 

Mekong watershed map
 
Map showing the Mekong watershed and main tributaries. Credit: © World Resources Institute

As it makes its journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River is a changing kaleidoscope of cultures, geography and plant and animal life. From a small trickle in Tibet, the river quickly gathers steam and carves magnificent gorges through Yunnan Province of China. It then turns into what it remains for most of the rest of its journey: a fast-flowing, meandering waterway that forms the heart and soul of mainland Southeast Asia.

 

During its passage through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Mekong bursts with colour and life. One hundred different ethnic groups live in the Mekong Basin and their livelihoods and cultures are intimately connected with the river's natural cycles.

The river boasts one of the world's most diverse and productive inland fisheries, supplying the people of the region with about 80 per cent of their protein needs. Whether it's the Great Lake of Cambodia (the country's fish basket) or the tropical wetlands of the Mekong Delta (the rice bowl of Vietnam), the river sustains the people and ecosystems of the region.

Yet this beautiful, dynamic and thriving river system is under threat. While the people living along the banks of the river see the Mekong as a resource to be nourished and sustained for future generations, governments and powerful foreign interests are greedily eyeing the Mekong's vast development potential. Where the people see a freeflowing river of life, governments and dambuilders see a cascade of hydroelectric dams to power the cities of Thailand and Vietnam.

The next decade is critical for the future of the Mekong. The region is riddled with undemocratic and corrupt governments who seem intent on pushing forward scores of dams on the Mekong mainstream and tributaries.

Chinese dams

China is building a cascade of eight dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan Province. Two of these projects have already been completed, and at least three more are under construction.

The projects are already having an impact on water levels and fisheries in Northern Thailand and Laos, where people are reporting a 50 per cent decline in fish catch since the second dam, Dachaoshan, was completed in 2003. Once the bigger projects in the cascade are operational, we can expect to see far-reaching downstream impacts.

 

Mekong Giant Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) © Zeb S. Hogan
 
The Mekong Giant Catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) is the world's largest freshwater fish, growing to as long as 3m (9 ft) and weighing as much as a tiger. It is now listed as critically endangered by IUCN. Photo © Zeb S. Hogan

 Laos, which contributes about a third of the Mekong's flow, is undergoing a dam building boom. In its bid to become "the battery of Southeast Asia," the government has signed deals with foreign investors to build more than 30 dams on Mekong tributaries, and is even considering two projects on the mainstream. Power from these projects would be sold to neighbouring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. While not all of these projects will get the green light, Laos' hydropower gold rush will have grim consequences for Laotian villagers and the Mekong river ecosystem, which can illafford a series of poorly planned projects.

 

Vietnam is also building dam cascades on several Mekong tributaries, the impacts of which are being experienced by ethnic minorities living in Vietnam and Cambodian villagers living downstream. Cambodia, which is essentially a floodplain, is also hoping to build dams on Mekong tributaries and the mainstream.

The result of all these dams would be death by a thousand cuts to the river's rich fisheries and the people who depend upon them. The Mekong River is still a thriving ecosystem, and it's not too late to protect it. Fishing provides 80 per cent of Mekong residents' dietary protein.

Hopeful developments

There is, however, a growing movement in the region to challenge dam plans and promote more sensible options for meeting the region's energy needs. And there are some hopeful developments in the basin.

 

Fish ladder at Pak Mool Dam, Thailand. Photo: Peter Charlesworth
 
The Pak Mun Dam on the Mekong's largest tributary has caused drastic reductions in fish populations upstream. In 2002, campaigners convinced the Thai government to open the dam's gates for four months per year to allow for fish migrations. Picture shows a fish ladder at the dam. Photo © Peter Charlesworth

A growing movement in Vietnam is investigating the impacts of dams and promoting energy alternatives. In Cambodia, efforts to protect the Tonle Sap Lake are gaining ground. And in Thailand, civil society is pushing for real alternatives that would meet Thailand's energy needs while avoiding imported hydropower and new fossil fuel plants.

 

We at IRN believe that the Mekong region can be developed while protecting its greatest asset: the river. What remains to be seen is whether governments and multilateral development banks have the courage to promote a new way forward: a way that combines effective protection of the river basin with prosperity for the river basin's 60 million inhabitants.

This article is reproduced from a special Mekong issue of World Rivers Review (June 2007) now available online here.

Hightlights from that report include:

Thailand has a great potentional of clean, renewable energy, but say Chris Greacen and Sheila Bijaar, despite good policies to promote clean, decentralised energy, the country's power sector has plans to increase Thailand's dependence on power plants and hydroelectricity schemes . "The outcome of these competing models could determine Thailand's ability to meet the major challenges of changing climate and the protection of natural resources."

Mainstream dams

While China is midway through the construction of a controversial cascade of major dam projects on the Upper Mekong mainstream, the lower stretch of the river shared by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam has so far escaped hydropower development. For the 60 million people who depend on the lower Mekong for food, income, transportation and other services, that has been good news. But now there are troubling signs that the tide is turning, as Laos and Cambodia offer up stretches of the mighty Mekong to dam builders.

One of these is the Don Sayang in the Khone Falls area of Laos, at a reported cost of $300 million. This is a key area for Mekong fisheries. The dam would block the sole channel that fish migrating up the river from Cambodia can easily pass, and ultimately undermine the fisheries in all four countries. This, and other proposed mainstream dams could have devastating consequences for the livelihoods of millions says IRN.

People's victory

The site of the first great Mekong dam struggle, the Pak Mun Dam was completed in 1994 on the Mun River, the Mekong's largest tributary. As a direct result of the dam, more than 20,000 people have been affected by drastic reductions in fish populations upstream. In 2002, after a 12-year battle, villagers were successful in convincing the Thai government to open the dam's gates for four months per year to allow for fish migrations. Villagers continue to fight for permanent decommissioning of the dam.