Mekong river dilemma

 By Nicholas Newman

There is a dilemma facing the people along the banks the Mekong River, located in Southeast Asia, to some future looks bleak and to others bright. The Mekong River, that begins in the high Himalayas and empties in the South China Sea, is home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and Mekong giant catfish. There are plans to construct along the Mekong River and its tributaries, some 12 hydroelectric dams along the upper section of the river between Laos and Thailand. However, concerns have been raised by environmental groups such as World Wildlife Fund the countries downstream over the potential negative impact on sediment flows, fisheries, rice production and the impact on where wildlife such as the Irrawaddy dolphin. The promoters of such dam projects see as a win-win solution, to not only bringing cheap, reliable and clean, environmentally friendly power to the regions 70 million citizens. But also an opportunity to boost the economic development of the region and reduce Southeast Asia’s reliance on fossil fuels for power generation. In addition, the surplus power will be sold off profitably to energy-hungry China…

Fed by the snowfields of the Tibetan Plateau, the 2,700 mile (4,345 km) Mekong flows through China and Myanmar, before becoming the border dividing Thailand and Laos. It then flows down to Cambodia’s lakes and through Vietnam, feeding the rice fields in the delta before emptying into the South China Sea. Providing around a quarter of all the world’s caught freshwater fish, it is crucial to the region’s food supply and a major source of income for those who live alongside it.

Second only to the Amazon for the number of fish species, it is home to the rare Irrawaddy dolphin and the Mekong giant catfish. It is upon this majestic river that the governments of Cambodia, Laos and Thailand plan to build 11 large hydropower dams on the lower Mekong’s mainstream. To those reliant on the river, such massive disruption threatens their homes, way of life and livelihood, while to others, it offers the prospect of cheap, clean and reliable electricity and provides a significant business opportunity to developers, banks and governments.

The specific plans by Thai, Malaysian, Chinese and Vietnamese developers and investors for at least 11 dams located principally in Laos are additional to six already built upstream in China. Dam promoters stress the benefits of cheap and reliable clean energy for the region’s 239 million population. The projects are strongly supported by the Laos government which views the dam building program as an opportunity to export around 90 percent of its hydropower to power-hungry China, Thailand and Vietnam. As Laotian Civil Engineer Khamlouvilaivong Vanthong vividly explains, “We want to build dams and become the world capital of clean energy – a giant battery for the whole Mekong region.”

Current and planned dam projects in the Mekong region (source: The Guardian)

International concern and opposition to these large-scale projects has been mounting, given the evidence that the upstream dams are already reducing silt flows downstream. As Mark Goichot, The World Wide Fund For Nature’s hydrologist, reports, “in 1990 around 160 million metric tons (176 million short tons) of river-borne silt was transported to the South China Sea, now only 75 million metric tons (83 million short tons) gets there” allowing the incursion of sea water into the Mekong delta. According to the BBC News, salt water intrusion destroyed more than 23 sq mi (60 sq km) of rice fields in 2014.

Thus, if built, these downstream dams will cut across the whole river, creating a series of barriers that will seriously affect the flow and hydrology of the Mekong, reports Oxfam Australia. Indeed, the World Wide Fund (WWF) claims that the damming of tributary streams alone can be expected to reduce total fish stocks by between ten and twenty-six percent while dams on the mainstream could cause a sixty and seventy percent loss of the fish catch by 2030. Philip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre at the University of Sydney, observes, “building a dam that blocks the major fish migration route in one of the world’s most significant artisanal freshwater fisheries does not seem like a very sensible priority.” Wildlife conservationists fear the potential impact on the little understood Mekong Giant Catfish and the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. There is also the human cost since these dams will displace around 100,000 people, estimates the Mekong River Commission.

Oxfam Australia and International Rivers have questioned the need for further dam building and propose an alternative solution based on investment in energy efficiency, renewables, smart grids, demand management and co-generation schemes which, they argue, would be more environmentally friendly and cost effective.

Tree loss in the Mekong region (source: The Guardian)

No one can be certain of the probable impact of these projects. Ulrich Zachau, World Bank country director for SE Asia, offers some reassurance, arguing that, if done properly, hydro offers affordable and reliable access to clean electricity. In contrast, USAID is not so certain, suggesting that the economic impact of these 11 projects could range between $33 billion net gain to a net loss of $274 billion.

Laos and Cambodia have strongly supported the construction of the 1285 MW Xayaburi dam and the Don Sahong dam, while the consortiums of Chinese, Malaysian and Thai dam-building companies have begun the roads and bridges needed in order to construct the $300 million Don Sahong dam, thus undermining the Mekong River Commission’s call for a 10-year moratorium to allow for further research and consultation. Nor does it help that the proposed alternative river barrage dam solutions, such as the Thako Water Diversion Project, have failed to attract the necessary finance.

As to the possibility that the current downturn in the Chinese economy might delay or even cancel these projects, Peter Bosshard, interim executive director of International Rivers, argues, “the Chinese government has often responded with additional incentives such as policy bank loans in economic downturns.“ If this should happen, the Laotians’ “Mother of Water,” the Vietnamese’s “Nine Dragons River,” and the Cambodians’ “Great River” will be totally transformed.

about the author
Nicholas Newman
Freelance energy journalist and copywriter who regularly writes for AFRELEC, Economist, Energy World, EER, Petroleum Review, PGJ, E&P, Oil Review Africa, Oil Review Middle East. Shale Gas Guide.