Mekong dams to hurt fish harvests: report

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  Farmers stand next to a dried-up rice field in Baan Nard village, Nongkhai province, Thailand. The Mekong and its tributaries provide food, water and transportation to about 48 million people in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Their livelihood is now threatened as governments turn to hydroelectric dams along the river to generate power and create revenue. Photo: Bloomberg

A new study warns that damming the Mekong River will drastically reduce Southeast Asian fish harvests and send farmers in the region scrambling to make up for a significant loss of protein.

In the meantime, policy wonks all over the world are warning that Vietnam's plans to dam smaller tributaries could have a dreadful impact on fish yields in the Mekong Delta, the country's major rice basket.

According to the report, entitled Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources, every 1,350 square kilometers of coastal land lost to dam reservoirs would require a minimum of 4,863 square kilometers of new pasture land to produce the same amount of protein.

The joint study produced by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Australian National University warned that the projects would place a massive economic and ecological strain on the region.

"Policymakers in the region need to ask themselves where they are going to find this additional land and water," said Stuart Orr, co-author of the study and WWF freshwater manager.

The lower Mekong flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam and directly sustains an estimated forty-eight million people. Eleven hydropower dams are set to be built on the Mekong River and another 77 along its basin by 2030.

Calculating the losses

On Monday (August 27), WWF released the report at World Water Week in Stockholm that warned the impact of the dams "would extend far beyond the river, as people turn to agriculture to replace lost calories, protein and micronutrients."

The study found that if all 11 planned main stream dams were built, annual fish harvests would fall by 16 percent"” an estimated loss of US$476 million a year.

Orr said policymakers often fail to recognize the crucial role inland fisheries play in meeting food security needs.

 "We recognize the need for energy to support economic development. But they must first fully understand and take into account the true economic and social value of a free-flowing Mekong," he told Vietweek. "We think [the study] provides a scenario that is worrying enough to give pause, and consider alternatives."

Co-author Dr. Jamie Pittock from the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australia National University said he hopes this study will fill some of the "knowledge gaps about the effects of the proposed dams."

The report was released while construction work appears to be moving ahead on the controversial Xayaburi dam in Laos, despite a decision by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission to halt the project pending further studies.

It would be the first of the planned dams to disrupt the river's lower main stream.

Vietnam's role in the problem

Marc Goichot, sustainable infrastructure senior advisor of WWF's Greater Mekong Program, said while projects on tributaries have far less impacts on environment and fish productivity than mainstream dams, those on the lower Se San in Vietnam might have as much impact on fish as the now infamous Xayaburi.

Vietnam has already built dams on Mekong River tributaries inside its borders (notably the upper Se San and Sre Pok), but Vietnamese companies are also planning and building dams on tributaries in Laos and Cambodia.

According to the World Bank, by the end of 2005, Vietnam's total installed generation capacity of 11,340 MW was dominated by hydropower (39 percent) and gas-fired plants (38 percent) with the rest supplied by coal-fired (14 percent), oil-fired (5 percent), and diesel generators (6 percent).

Vietnam aims to keep hydropower at 40 percent by 2015 while aggressively developing gas to a share of 40 percent and increase the proportion of coal-fired plants to 18 percent, the World Bank said.

Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center (a Washington think-tank) said a dozen or more hydropower projects on the Mekong's tributaries of Se San, Se Kong and Sre Pok (3S) are mainly Vietnamese dams with one or two planned in Cambodia that would be built by Chinese companies.

"Vietnam is not likely to be swayed by the land and food security issues alone," he said.

 But he said Vietnamese policymakers should pay more attention to the dams on the 3S Rivers because they would probably withhold more nutrient-rich silt from the Mekong Delta than any other of the proposed dam projects.

In addition, the 3S projects represent a major threat to the water (both in terms of quality and availability) used by the coastal aquaculture industry.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, a Berkeley-based NGO, said experts have long warned that no technology exists to effectively mitigate the impacts of dams on the Mekong's fisheries.

"A looming land, water, and food shortage in the near future should be enough reason for all of the Mekong countries to rethink the immense value of keeping the Mekong River free-flowing.

 "Climate change will also only further exacerbate the negative impacts caused by hydropower dams. It's time for the Mekong governments to cooperate together, in order to protect the river's rich natural resources."

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