Last word not heard on Mekong dams yet

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Laos's decision to delay the Xayaburi dam does nothing to assuage fears since it may yet be revived while China is on a dam-building blitz


Cambodian fishermen who live by the
Mekong
River pass the time by their boats outside Phnom Penh. Though Laos has put off construction of the giant Xayaburi dam for the moment to await further studies about its possible impact, China's dam-building spree in both Southeast Asia and at home still threatens to have a serious impact on the lower Mekong.

Laos has put off construction of the giant Xayaburi dam for the moment to await further studies about its possible impact.

But even if it is taken out of the equation, China's dam-building spree in both Southeast Asia and at home threatens to have a serious impact on the lower Mekong.

On December 8, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, the four countries that share the lower reaches of the Mekong, failed to reach an agreement over the construction of Xayaburi after it came under fierce opposition from environmentalists and local communities.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which coordinates dam projects along the river, said in a statement that "there is a need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impacts from mainstream hydropower development projects."

But it stopped short of saying whether the project would be suspended.

"Several newspapers and environmental groups have interpreted the MRC's Council as making a decision to postpone the construction of Xayaburi dam, but as far as I can ascertain from reports and the MRC's own press-release, no such decision was taken," David Blake, a hydropower expert at the University of East Anglia in the UK, said.

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"The [MRC]'s Joint Council seems to have consciously shied away from taking any hard decisions concerning the Xayaburi mainstream dam project and prevaricated about addressing the "˜elephant in the room' directly, hiding behind some loosely worded language," he said.

Just a day before the Mekong nations held the conclave to decide on the Xayaburi dam, energy-hungry Cambodia opened the country's largest hydropower dam to date, the 194-megawatt US$280-million Kamchay dam in what Prime Minister Hun Sen called an "historic event" in the nation's development. The Chinese-funded dam survived widespread protests from environmental groups.

The opening of the Kamchay, which is not located on the Mekong's mainstream, yet again spotlighted China's dam-building spree in Southeast Asia.

International Rivers, a US-based nonprofit group that works to protect rivers, has been collecting information on China's global role in dam building since 2008. Chinese banks and companies are involved in building nearly 300 dams in some 70 countries, particularly in Africa and Southeast Asia, it said.

In Southeast Asia alone, it said, the number of Chinese dams that are under construction or are proposed include 10 in Cambodia, 26 in Laos, and 55 in Myanmar. Of them, four are to be built on the mainstream Mekong - three in Laos and one in Cambodia.

Chinese institutions are mostly developing or financing the 300 dams or Chinese companies have won construction contracts, the US NGO added.

"While China has not been the rogue global dam builder we feared, Chinese dam builders have yet to show they are willing to meet their international responsibilities when operating abroad," Grace Mang, the China global program coordinator at International Rivers, said.

In the meantime, China's upstream dams continue to cause worry due to the lack of information about their water flows, development plans, cumulative environmental impacts, and trans-boundary impacts.

China started operating its first dam, the Manwan, on the mainstream Lancang River (Upper Mekong) in 1992. The second and third dams, Dachaoshan and Jinghong, were completed in 2003 and 2008.

In October 2009 China announced that a fourth dam, the massive 292-meter high Xiaowan Dam, had started filling its reservoir. The fifth, the Nuozhadu, with a capacity of 22.4 billion cubic meters, is poised to begin operating next July.

China is looking to almost double its hydropower capacity to at least 300 gigawatts by 2020 by building three more dams on the Mekong.

"China of course continues without letup to build its eight-dam cascade in Yunnan [Province] regardless of downstream opinion," Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at Stimson Center, a US-based research institute, said.

China has defended the benefits of its dams by saying they can store water for the dry season and control flooding in the rainy season.

But a number of academics in the field just do not buy it.

"The Chinese dams will definitely have a significant negative downstream impact, especially in terms of shifting the timing of the seasonal wet-dry shift by several weeks, doing a lot of damage to river banks, causing rapid changes to the river's level in northern Laos, and making some change in the seasonal water levels of the Tonle Sap (and shifting, but not ending the flood pulse)," Cronin said.

"Vietnam stands to be hard hit through decline in wet season flows and loss of sediment inflow to the [Mekong] Delta, and massive declines in fishery potential anticipated, both in the freshwater and inshore marine environments," Blake, the UK expert, said.

 "These impacts will be increasingly felt with each additional dam in the Yunnan cascade completed."

Analysts also lamented that China is reluctant to fully disclose complete water data and information on the operation and construction of its Mekong River dams.

Blake said this is "normal" in China since dams and their operations are often regarded as state secrets.

Mang of International Rivers said: "It has been very difficult for civil society both within China and in the Lower Mekong Countries to determine the exact toll of these dams on downstream countries because of the lack of transparency in China."

Hans Guttman, the MRC chief, said his organization and China are "cooperating" in addressing this matter.

"The upstream partner and the MRC have agreed to share with each other hydrological data during the dry season when "¦ water levels reach a critical level," he said.

Last October Myanmar surprised many by deciding to halt the China-backed 6,000 MW Myitsone dam, which was said to anger Beijing and the developer who maintained that it has "gone through scientific verification and strict examination [on] both sides."

Experts said it would be interesting to see if the suspension of Myitsone would have any effect on Chinese activity in the Lower Mekong.

"Beijing has to at least think about the possibility of a "˜blowback' from projects in the Mekong, though I don't see any sign of a change in Chinese policy yet," Cronin said.

"Chinese aid and Chinese companies will also continue to remain active in the Lower Mekong, including projects such as the Kamchay dam [in Cambodia] and one or more dams on tributaries in Laos."

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