Dams spell doom

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NGOs urge cancellation of hydropower projects planned on mainstream Mekong River

Fisherman work on dried-up banks of the Mekong River in Muang District in Thailand's Nongkhai Province

The debate over dams on the lower Mekong continued to rage with campaigners calling for a halt to the discussion process on constructing any on the river's mainstream.

The renewed call for a moratorium on dams followed the release of a report last week that listed the harmful impacts they would have on biodiversity and the livelihoods of millions of people living in the river basin.

"The regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam [in Laos] should be delayed if not altogether stopped," said Ame Trandem, the Mekong Campaigner for International Rivers a US-based NGO which seeks to protect rivers and defend the rights of communities that depend on them.

The Strategic Environment Assessment (SEA) report commissioned by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) released on October 15, recommends that countries in the lower Mekong River region delay any decisions about building hydropower dams for ten years because of many risks involved.

The MRC an intergovernmental organization comprising of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam studied the impacts of 12 hydropower projects on Southeast Asia's longest river and the world's most valuable inland fisheries. The livelihoods of more than 60 million people rely on this 4,000km river that begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea.

On September 22, the MRC announced that the Laotian government has proposed construction of the first hydroelectric dam of Xayaboury to be built directly on the river and that the proposal would trigger an organizational process, beginning discussions on the project.

Trandem said the MRC's SEA report is the result of a comprehensive assessment of both the costs and benefits of the Mekong mainstream dams and that the recommendation to defer regional decisions is based on enormous risk and harm that dams pose to the region's environment, people and security.

"The food security and livelihoods of millions of people would be jeopardized for the benefit of a few," she told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"To date, the decision-making process has failed to meet standards in transparency and public participation, as the people who rely on the river the most have yet to be consulted on this project," she added.

No benefits

Trandem said all dam constructions on the river should be stopped because they present huge risks for a minimal amount of power.

"There are smarter paths toward meeting energy needs in the region. Through the use of better technologies and more informed choices, destructive dams no longer make sense for the Mekong region," she said.

Marc Goichot, Sustainable Infrastructure Senior Advisor of WWF's Greater Mekong Program, advised that the dams are shifted to the river's tributaries.

"In terms of installed capacity and annual total production the [planned] mainstream dams' contribution is important, but if you put this in the context of the forecasted need to support the next 30 years growth of the region, than it adds up to merely five percent of the total," Goichot said.

"Then if you put this in the national perspective of Vietnam, then it is clear that Vietnam has other options," he added.

"The country can very well develop without importing electricity of the Mekong mainstream. Options include further sustainable hydropower both in Vietnam and on some selected tributaries in Laos."

Goichot said Thailand and Vietnam would both be exposed to negative impacts once the dams were constructed and if the ten-year deferment can be used to better understand the impacts and devise proper mitigation measures, it can also be used to explore new technological options and new sites that could allow harnessing the hydropower potential of mainstream Mekong with far less impacts.

"The development policy of Laos to generate revenue through the import of electricity can also be supported for the coming 10 years with sustainable and optimized hydropower projects on selected tributaries of the Mekong on Lao territory," he said.

New input

Meanwhile, the MRC said the SEA final results will act as an input to the prior consultation process for the Xayaboury dam, that could take six months, "as well as for others in the future when respective governments decide to submit them under MRC's procedures."

In the next steps, the MRC will propose to conduct consultations with MRC programs and member countries on the SEA Final Report's recommendations and findings, Jeremy Bird, CEO of the MRC Secretariat, told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"The consultants' recommendation for a deferment in mainstream development will be reviewed by the MRC Joint Committee and subject to discussion by the member countries as to whether or not to delay or proceed with the proposed project and under what conditions," he said, adding that this process would take a further six months after which the strategy agreed by the member countries would be determined.

"The report has only just been published and so the MRC member countries have not yet had the opportunity to review the findings in detail and discuss them collectively. That process will require more time," he said.


Mainstream hydropower is not particularly significant for Thailand and Vietnam. Development of Lower Mekong Basin mainstream projects would have a minor impact on electricity prices and would have little effect on the energy supply strategies of those countries.

Mainstream projects are likely to have a significant impact on the nutritional status of the poor given the extent of the expected reduction in fisheries.

Mainstream development will result in changes in season flow rates, sediment and nutrient transport and river ecosystems in the Delta.

By 2030, if 11 mainstream dams were built, the protein at risk of being lost annually would be the equivalent of 100 percent the current annual livestock production of Cambodia and Laos.

The agricultural sector would be adversely affected by mainstream hydropower development because of inundation of agricultural land and loss of river bank gardens, despite expansions in irrigation associated with the projects. The impacts on agriculture in the Delta are likely to be significant but at this stage have not been investigated or estimated.

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