Study reveals tragic dangers of Mekong dam boom

Posted: 25 September 2008

A new hard-hitting report exposes the social and environmental damage being done by the unprecedented dam-building boom in river-rich Laos. It is being presented today to an official consultation, in Vientiane, on the Mekong River Commission's Hydropower Programme in Vientiane.

The 88-page report by Dr. Carl Middleton, coordinator of the International Rivers Mekong Programme, appeals to the Lao government and donor agencies to change its damming plans.

Map of key existing and proposed dams
Map of key existing and proposed dams
Map of key existing and proposed dams. Click on image to enlarge.
It wants the Lao Government to:

  • explore economic alternatives to hydropower;
  • designate the Mekong mainstream off-limits to dam development;
  • impose a moratorium on new hydro projects until basin-wide plans are in place; enforce Laos' environmental laws;
  • and for dams that proceed, share hydro benefits through life-of-project payments and service provision to all affected people, up and downstream.
Laos 'an opaque, one-party state' has declared it a national priority to spur the country's development through the rapid construction of large dams that export high-risk hydropower to neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam. With six big dams already in operation, seven currently under construction, at least 12 more in the works and development deals pending on another 35, Laos' flood of hydro projects will monopolise the Mekong at the expense of other vital uses, the study warns.

Case studies

Power Surge includes 11 detailed case studies revealing that "Lao villagers are being sold down the river in hydro deals that take their fertile farmland and river fisheries, leaving them without critical sources of food and income." The people of Laos are among the poorest in the region; about 80 per cent are farmers and fishers who have few other means to meet their basic needs and earn a living.

Nam Mouan and Nam Theun-Kading Rivers
Nam Mouan and Nam Theun-Kading Rivers
The Nam Mouan and Nam Theun-Kading Rivers are used for bathing, washing and drinking water. Photo by David J.H. Blake
"Big dams don't develop Laos; they destroy invaluable rivers and resources upon which Lao people depend for daily survival" says Shannon Lawrence, Lao Program Director for International Rivers and editor of the report. "Poverty reduction initiatives that support rural communities and promote government accountability need to be prioritized and scaled-up."

According to the report, dam deals appear to be made on a first-come, first-served basis with interested companies, most of which are based in Thailand, China, Vietnam, Russia and Malaysia. The Lao Water Resources and Environment Agency lacks the authority to compel dam developers to pay for the social and environmental costs of their projects or to enforce local law. Laos' biggest hydro project under construction, the French-led Nam Theun 2, has fallen short of promises made by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank that it would set a new sustainability standard for Lao dams, the report says.

One of the most destructive dams highlighted is the proposed Don Sahong Hydropower Project, which would be the first dam built on the lower Mekong River mainstream, one of the six that Laos is proposing. The dam would block the main channel passable year-round by fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Costly mistake

Mekong mainstream dams - like Don Sahong - would be a tragic and costly mistake, says the report. For only 360 megawatts of electricity, Don Sahong would devastate fisheries that are central to people's food security and the wider economy and undermine the region's growing tourism potential. In a region where wild-capture fisheries are valued at US$2 billion per year and are of critical importance to riparian communities, these dams simply don't add up, says Dr. Middleton.

Fishing near Thonglom village on the Hinboun River
Fishing near Thonglom village on the Hinboun River
Fishing near Thonglom village on the Hinboun River. Photo by David J.H. Blake
The Mekong River Commission is a river basin management organization directed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and funded by donor governments such as Australia, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Japan and Sweden.

In his presentation to the Commission, Middleton will challenge the dam industry's business-as-usual approach in Laos and the wider Mekong Region. International Rivers is also sending the report and recommendations to other international institutions involved in Laos' hydro boom including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.

Commenting beforehand he said: "A healthy Mekong River is priceless. It is not simply the provider of economic commodities such as fish, irrigation water, and hydroelectricity. It is also the lifeblood of the region, its history and inspiration. Instead of choking the Mekong with dams, it is time that this tired old development model is replaced with one that celebrates the region's rich cultural and ecological inheritance."

He was supported by the Lao programme director for International Rivers, Shannon Lawrence, who said: "If companies are going to build dams in a one-party state with no free press and little transparency, they have to take extraordinary measures to make sure that environmental and social standards are met. This is the cost of doing business in places where people's rights are not adequately protected by the rule of law. Dam-affected people must be guaranteed compensation for their losses as well as given a direct share of project benefits."

Click here to download full report. See more news from International Rivers at www.internationalrivers.org

Editor's note: Laos has a population of 5.9 million and a Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of around US$4 billion. The estimated commercial value of Mekong River Basin fisheries is US$2 billion according to the Mekong River Commission (2005). The Mekong River provides fish, drinking water, irrigation and transport for more than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin.

Known as the "Mother of Waters", the Mekong River supports one of the world's most diverse fisheries, rivaled only by the Amazon and the Congo. Fish consumption in Laos is estimated to be more than 200,000 tonnes per year or more than 40 kilograms per person per year, while subsistence agriculture, dominated by rice, accounts for about 40 per cent of GDP and provides 80 per cent of total employment

Laos has 18,000 megawatts of exploitable hydropower potential, less than 5 per cent of which has been developed.

Related links:

Dam builders line up to tame the Mekong

Dammed and dying: Mekong and its communities face a bleak future

Crunch time for Nam Theum dam