Thursday 29 Sep 2022 | 08:16 | SYDNEY
Thursday 29 Sep 2022 | 08:16 | SYDNEY

Mekong: Dams damned in new report

7 July 2010 09:15

In my 30 June post I speculated on why Vietnamese officials moved from very cautious, not to say obfuscatory, comment on the proposed construction of hydropower dams on the mainstream of the Mekong below China (in Laos, between Laos and Thailand, and in Cambodia) to a vigorous criticism of such plans. Over the past few days, more information has come to hand that makes it clearer why the Vietnamese acted as they did, and why they have been joined by Thailand in this blunt criticism of the proposed dams.

What I was not aware of until 2 July was the fact that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) had released a 'Discussion Draft' at the workshop meeting it convened in Ho Chi Minh City, on 28 and 29 July, to discuss possible dams on the Mekong below China. With the title, 'Impact Assessment (Opportunities and Risks)', this is a weighty document of nearly 250 pages designed to prefigure the final Strategic Environmental Assessment on mainstream dams due out in August.

I can't pretend to have yet absorbed every word, but even a cursory examination of the document makes clear the essentially negative findings of the MRC Secretariat so far as the proposed dams are concerned. While accepting that, if built, the proposed dams would meet domestic needs and produce export income through the generation of electricity, the report lists a series of negative consequences from the construction of the dams. Among the most important are:

  • Economic loss of wetland and ecosystems.
  • Changes in natural resource availability likely to impact the most vulnerable members of the population.
  • Abolition of ecologically important transition systems on the river.  
  • Loss of rare and endangered fish species.
  • Loss of 600,000 tonnes of fish catch, which would be equivalent to the loss of the inland fish production of the whole of West Africa.
  • Negative effects on 23.5 million of the approximately 60 million people in the Lower Mekong Basin, with the loss of employment of up to a million people dependent on fisheries in Cambodia alone.

There is little doubt that this document has already had a major effect on attitudes in Vietnam and Thailand.

A report in the 1 July issue of The Financial Times quotes a Thai representative at the Ho Chi Minh City meetings as condemning both the dams China has already built in its own territory and the prospect that it will cooperate in building dams on the Mekong below China. Similar stories have been carried in The Nation and The Bangkok Post.

But the most revealing and detailed media commentary on the meeting has come from Thanh Nhien, the Vietnamese journal that has been the Vietnamese Government’s preferred vehicle for criticising the proposed mainstream dams while holding back from direct criticism of its ASEAN and MRC neighbours.

In an article on 2 July, the journal claims that there was agreement at the workshop among the four member countries of the MRC that work on the dams on the mainstream of the river should be deferred until social and economic impacts are addressed.

But Thanh Nhien went to record that, while Cambodian representatives at the meeting 'offered commentary' on various aspects of the MRC document, Cambodia did not come down with a clear preference for future action, while the Lao delegates called for further study.

These reactions are not surprising. The Phnom Penh Government will not readily adopt positions that run counter to the view of China, which is hoping, through the Southern China Power Grid company, to build the major dam at Sambor. As for Laos, the government there sees the construction of dams on the mainstream of the Mekong as the quickest way to transform its economy.

Two additional points have emerged from the surge in reporting that has followed the Ho Chi Minh City meeting. First is the confirmation that twelve, rather than eleven, hydropower projects are under consideration on the Mekong’s mainstream. Although I noted in ‘The Mekong: River Under Threat’ that additional dams to the eleven then identified might be under consideration, it is only now that I am able to identify an additional proposed hydropower project at Thakho in the far south of Laos, just above the Khone Falls. Still, it appears debatable whether this project should strictly be described as a dam, involving as it does the channelling of water rather than any form of retention behind a dam wall.

Second is the reported comments in Thanh Nhien from the Chief Executive Office of the MRC, Jeremy Bird. According to the journal, Bird said that 'mitigation efforts for fisheries were being explored. Fish ways, if properly constructed could allow migratory species to pass through a mainstream hydroelectric dam.'

Bird's comments seem remarkable. When a panel of 17 experts was convened 2008 by the MRC to study the possibility of mitigating the effects of dams built on the mainstream of the river, they reached a unanimous conclusions that all three suggested ways of achieving mitigation would fail, including the construction of fish ways, or bypasses, that would allow fish to swim around dams.

So either there are new findings from experts, or the MRC's CEO is making what can only be regarded as a very bold statement on a vitally important issue.

Photo by Flickr user Dave B, used under a Creative Commons license.