The Battle Over the Mekong
October 22, 2010
By Tom Fawthrop
Chinese dams threaten one of the worldï¿½s most biodiverse rivers,
critics say. Itï¿½s not just environmentalists who are worried.
The untamed, roaring currents of the mighty Mekong have long enchanted
travellers, inspired explorers and sustained some 65 million
inhabitants who live off the worldï¿½s largest freshwater fisheries.
From its source in the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, the Mekong
flows 1,880 kilometres through China, winding down through the heart
of South-east Asia before emptying into a fertile delta in Vietnam.
ï¿½For the people born on the Mekong, the river is like their bloodï¿½the
principle of life,ï¿½ says Dorn Bouttasing, an environmental researcher
Nita Roykaew, a teacher and ecologist based in Chiang Khong in
northern Thailand, agrees. ï¿½The Mekong is very special for the
people,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½The community understands whatï¿½s important for
life: water, forests, soil and culture.ï¿½
Nita, a community organiser with the ï¿½Save the Mekongï¿½ campaign, says
he sees the river as a precious part of the countryï¿½s cultural
heritage, something that should transcend simple financial
considerations. ï¿½Many governments only think about the economy,ï¿½ he
says. ï¿½(They think) nothing about nature and culture.ï¿½
But the river, one of the most biodiverse in the world, is under
threat. Included in the riverï¿½s rich ecosystem is the giant catfish,
which can grow to up to 3 metres in length and weigh in excess of 300
kg, as well as a colony of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. Itï¿½s a
natural mecca for ecotourism, but rapid investment in the rapid
expansion of hydropower dams is starting to take its toll.
China has already built four dams on the Lancang (the Chinese stretch
of the Mekong), including the colossal Xiaowan Dam, the tallest high-
arch dam in the world at 292 metres high, which was completed in
But plans for four more in China on top of 11 already approved by
government planners in Laos and Cambodia have raised serious concerns
about the riverï¿½s future.
ï¿½The two dams, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu (the next Chinese dam to be
built), will impact the flow regime of the entire systemï¿½all the way
down to the delta in Vietnam,ï¿½ saysPhilip Hirsch, director of the
Mekong Research Centre at the University of Sydney.
But itï¿½s not just the Chinese government that supports the dam
building. Officials in Laos are also keen to exploit the promise of
hydropower, seeing it as one way to lift the country out of chronic
poverty through electricity sales to energy-hungry neighbours Thailand
Indeed, Laos has just become the first of the Lower Mekong nations to
push ahead with a dam project on the riverï¿½at Xayaburiï¿½aimed at
generating electricity to sell to Thailand.
Last month, in accordance with a Mekong River Commission agreement
between the four Mekong countries, the Laotian government formally
notified the Commission of its intentions, setting in motion a six-
month consultation process with Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam that
allows the others to voice any objections.
The problem for countries further down the Mekong is that dams reduce
the levels of sediment and silt that carry nutrients essential for
fish to survive. Taming the riverï¿½s waters will, Hirsch predicts,
reduce the river to little more than ï¿½a series of still reservoirs and
ï¿½This cascade of dams will transform the Mekongï¿½ he says.
But thereï¿½s also concern closer to home. While foreign investors and
Lao officials insist that their plans will help develop this poor,
landlocked nation, many villagers remain sceptical. Scientists, NGOs
and Mekong communities, meanwhile have all expressed concern about
rushing into a dam building spree before the likely environmental
impact is fully understood.
ï¿½Thereï¿½s a very fast pace of hydropower development,ï¿½ says Juha
Sarkkala, a Mekong specialist with the Helsinki Institute of the
Environment. ï¿½We need a timeout. We need a moratorium on dams to
consider a different strategy of development.ï¿½
The Thai NGO forum, representing 24,000 people living in river
communities inNorthern Thailand, has called on the government to
cancel commitments by the Thai Electricity Company to purchase
electricity from the Xayaburi dam.
A Thai parliamentary committee chaired by Kraisak Choonhavan MP is
studying the impact of dams on the Mekong, but Kraisak has already
indicated he has significant concerns. ï¿½The effect of the Xayaburi Dam
will be devastating on all the countriesï¿½Laos, Thailand Cambodia and
Vietnam,ï¿½ says Kraisak, a former senator and now deputy leader of the
ruling Democrat Party.
The World Wildlife Fund has also waded into the issue, stating that if
the Xayaburi dam is built, it will almost certainly wipe out the
endangered giant catfish, adding that the colony of Irrawaddy dolphins
would also stand little chance of survival.
The controversy means that Xayaburi has become a test case for Mekong
dam projects as an international issue. If Thailand and Vietnam both
express serious objections, then the dam is likely preventableï¿½Laos
will only go ahead if itï¿½s sure Thailand will buy the electricity
Many NGOs and scientists in Vietnam, meanwhile, have already spoken
out against the building of more dams. Trinh Le Nguyen, executive
director of the NGO People and Nature Reconciliation, argues: ï¿½For
Vietnam, the existing and proposed dams on the mainstream and
tributaries of the Mekong River pose tremendous threats to 20 million
people living in the delta.ï¿½
Cambodia for its part might also raise objections, as the dam risks
disrupting a significant food source for the country.
Many of the planned downstream dams will block fish migration,
especially the Don Sahong near the spectacular Khone Waterfall, which
sits astride the only passable channel for fish swimming up from
Cambodia and Vietnam. For Cambodians who depend on freshwater
fisheries for an estimated 80 percent of their protein intake, dams
that block fish migration spell disaster for food security.
Gordon Congdon, WWFï¿½s representative in Kratie, Cambodia, argues that
to replace the main protein diet of fish for the about 65 million
people that would be affected could involve ï¿½fantasticï¿½ costs if
governments were forced to import additional meat to compensate for
the loss of fish.
So Nam, a professor at the Institute of Fisheries in Phnom Penh, agrees.
ï¿½People there totally depend on fishï¿½we have one of the highest rates
of fish consumption in world,ï¿½ So says. ï¿½Every year, Cambodian people
catch about half a million tons of fish, and it provides more than six
million people with employment.ï¿½
The final Strategic Environmental Assessment report by independent
consultants to the MRC has also made clear the enormity of the risks
involved in going ahead with more dams. SEA consultants have
investigated four possible options for MRC member states, but have
recommended that decisions on mainstream dams should be deferred for a
period of up to 10 years, with a review every three years.
Hirsch insists that on an issue as important as this, that this should
be the absolute minimum. ï¿½It should only be decided on the best
possible evidence. Letï¿½s hold off for at least ten years. Atleast ten
years,ï¿½ he says.
Itï¿½s clear that the decision on Xayaburi is about more than just one
damï¿½it could set the course of the Mekongï¿½s fate for generations to
If the Xayaburi proposal is approved and implemented,Nguyensays he
worries that it will effectively give the green light for more such
projects. ï¿½Thatï¿½s a dangerous movement,ï¿½ he says. ï¿½At the end of the
day, no dam is the best option for all countriesï¿½not only for Vietnamï¿½.
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