Dammed if you do"¦

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Mekong River communities are facing a double threat: the perils of upstream dams in China and possibility of twelve new downstream

A dry rice field in An Giang Province the Mekong Delta. Lower Mekong countries are considering twelve dams on the Mekong River mainstream even after academics linked changes in the river's hydrology and sediment load to the operation of the Lancang dam cascade in China.

Work on 12 downstream dams planned on the Mekong River should be deferred until their social and environmental impacts are addressed at length, delegations from member nations of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) agreed at a two day workshop held in Ho Chi Minh City.

The workshop, which wrapped up on June 29, signaled the end of a project assessment process that began in May of 2009.

"We were looking to gather the environmental perspectives of the member countries," Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC said in a phone interview. "There certainly was an agreement that much more discussion and work needs to be done before any construction can begin."

Bird added that the MRC will release its final report on the proposed dam projects in August. Following the release, the MRC will begin presenting its findings to various governmental bodies.

Some workgroups expressed concern over the future of the river's ecosystem as well as the communities that rely on it for survival.

The stakes are very high, they said.

The MRC has reported that more than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin depend on the river system for food, transportation and their economic livelihoods.

The estimated commercial value of the freshwater fisheries in the basin exceeds US$2 billion per year, making it the world's most valuable inland fishery. Eighty percent of the animal protein for Mekong inhabitants comes from the river. Up to 40 percent of fish harvested are migratory species.

Slow and steady

The Vietnamese delegation recommended the deferment of all mainstream hydropower dam projects none of which are proposed to be built in Vietnam.

"Proceeding with rapid development of all 12 dams would greatly impact [Vietnam's] Mekong Delta," the Vietnamese delegation said, urging other nations to consider alternative energy sources.

The Thai working group also advised the stoppage of all Mekong mainstream dam projects, fearing damages to the livelihood of riparian stakeholders.

Senator Surajit Chirawate, who serves as Chairman of the Thai Senate Sub-committee on Water Resources, argued that any mainstream damming would change the river's ecology irrevocably.

"We understand the need for electricity in other countries - especially in Laos and Cambodia," Chirawate told Thanh Nien Weekly. "But we also think trying to generate power from mainstream dams is very risky."

"There are other options," Chirawate said. "[Damming the Mekong's mainstream] could severely impact the food security of the people who live along the river."

The Cambodian working group offered commentary on each of the four proposed options: abandoning the project, deferring construction, proceeding with caution and accelerating construction. Cambodian representatives did not exhibit a clear predilection for any option.

The Laotian team called for further study to minimize potential environmental impacts and ecological variables.

Up the river"¦

The impacts of China's four major hydroelectric dams have dismayed downstream nations.

In 1996, China and Myanmar signed on to be "dialogue partners." This April, China pledged further cooperation with the MRC to mitigate droughts.

However, resentment and suspicion continues to linger.

"China considers itself a big country that doesn't have to listen to the opinions of the people downstream," Thai Senator Prasarn Marukpitak told Thanh Nien Weekly. "[China]"˜s four upriver dams have altered the water levels causing the riverbank erosion and shifts in the waterway."

Marukpitak said that MRC member countries currently "have to rely on the management of the Chinese."

However MRC's Bird said that China has demonstrated a legitimate desire to operate its existing dams in a mutually beneficial manner. "China has been very cooperative in this assessment process," he stressed.

Getting there

"The biggest question is the impact these dams will have on fisheries and, their consequential impact on livelihoods," said Bird.

He noted that mitigation efforts for fisheries were being explored. Fish ways, if properly constructed could allow migratory species to pass through a mainstream hydroelectric dam, he said.

"We haven't had a consensus yet, but we're starting to get a gathering of opinions around some two or three different directions," Bird said. "I think that's encouraging for future discussion on the issue."

Reported by Minh Hung

Mekong River Commission called onto the carpet

On June 15th, a public interest group called Save The Mekong Coalition (SMC) requested that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) release complete data on this year's regional drought, which they suspect was exacerbated by a Chinese dam.

In a March report on the drought conditions, the intergovernmental body attributed the drought entirely to poor rainfall. Regardless, on June 21, the MRC pledged to release an updated report on the low-flow and drought in August.

The SMC has requested public access to water level data for three Lancang dams. They've placed particular emphasis on the Xiaowan.

In July 2009, the Xiaowan Dam started filling its reservoir. The filling of the Xiaowan Dam's reservoir coincided with a period of reduced rainfall and then drought, Save The Mekong Coalition reported.

"While less rainfall was undoubtedly a key factor in the 2010 drought, a question that remains urgent and unanswered is whether the Xiaowan dam's reservoir filling compounded the drought's severity," the SMC said in a June 15th letter addressed to Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat.

The letter stressed that 2010 has been a dire period for fishers, farmers and those who rely on the river for their livelihoods. "The Mekong region has suffered its worse drought in decades," the SMC wrote.

"In media statements and reports on the drought, the MRC sought to exonerate China's Lancang dams from the severity of the drought through progressively definite statements, despite the fact that data was not released to the public either by China or the MRC that conclusively supported this position," the letter stated. "Given the insufficient data in the public domain, we believe that MRC's assertive position that China's Lancang dams did not contribute to the drought was irresponsible and inappropriate."

Bird told Thanh Nien Weekly that his organization is in the process of updating its March 2010 report which attributed the drought entirely to a prolonged dry spell. He asserted that more water was going out of the Xiaowan reservoir than was coming in during the period of drought.

In a written response to the SMC dated June 21st, Bird pledged to release the new findings in August 2010.

"We've received some more information from the Chinese authorities and we're doing some more modeling and things" Bird said in the interview.

"Our overall conclusion won't change from March."

Source: Thanh Nien

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