Death by strangulation? Hydropower threatens to kill the mighty Mekong

| 27th March 2015
A reclusive Irawaddy dolphin on the Mekong river at Kampie, Cambodia. Photo: Jim Davidson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
A reclusive Irawaddy dolphin on the Mekong river at Kampie, Cambodia. Photo: Jim Davidson via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND).
Over 18 million people live off the natural bounty of the The Mekong Delta, writes Tom Fawthrop - the source of huge annual harvests of fish, rice, fruit, and one of the world's most productive ecosystems. But now huge dams threaten to strangle the Mekong river and the abundant life it supports, while the world sits idly by.
Killing off the Irrawaddy Dolphins is just the beginning of a chain of calamities that would be set in motion by the Don Sahong dam construction, and the Xayaburi dam already under construction.

In its 4,880km journey from the snow-capped mountains to Tibet to the delta in Vietnam, Sipandon in southern Laos stands out as a critical part of the Mekong's uniquely wonderful ecosystem, blessed by raging waterfalls, picturesque islands, and graced by a colony of highly endangered freshwater dolphins.

Irrawaddy dolphins symbolise the magnificence of the Mekong River and its continued high biodiversity. WWF regards the dolphins as a flagship species, reflecting the health of the river ecosystem for other species, including humans.

But the dwindling numbers of surviving dolphins - estimated between 78 and 91 individuals confined to Sipandon in Laos, and neighbouring Cambodia, should ring alarm bells that all is not well in the river. Dolphin conservation is also vitally important to local villagers who have come to revere them.

The area's dolphins alone would justify designating Sipandon - which translates as 'Four Thousand Islands' as a wetland sanctuary protected by the Ramsar Convention.

And that's before taking into account its spectacular beauty, its extraordinary bioversity, and its enormous importance for fish which feed 60 million people downstream.

But instead of protecting Sipandon, Laos is bent on its destruction

"If this special wetlands zone is protected, it could be one of the great wonders of the world", says Carl Grundy-Warr, a geography professor at the National university of Singapore (NUS). "But now it is far from being a secure sanctuary."

Instead of signing up to the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands Protected Areas, the government of Laos has perversely opted to launch a hydro-electric dam in this Mekong wetlands zone in 2015, spurning opportunities for the Lao people to further benefit from expanding ecotourism, and nature conservation.

"The dam builders intend to excavate millions of tonnes of rock using explosives, creating strong sound waves that could create grave, potentially lethal threats to the only dolphin population in Laos"WWF reports. "These dolphins have highly sensitive hearing structures."

Mekong specialist Dr Grundy-Warr concluded that "if these dams along the mainstream of the Lower Mekong go ahead we are talking about massive calamity".

Killing off the Irrawaddy Dolphins is just the beginning of a chain of calamities that would be set in motion by the Don Sahong dam construction, and the Xayaburi dam already under construction. There are nine more dams in the pipeline.

With so much water diverted from magnificent Khone Phapheng waterfalls to fuel the Don Sahong dam, Mekong experts fear this national treasure, the widest waterfall in Southeast Asia, would be undermined and lose its iconic status.

A great and productive ecosystem may soon be unravelled

Killing off the Irrawaddy Dolphins is just the beginning of a chain of calamities that would be set in motion by the Don Sahong dam construction, and the Xayaburi dam already under construction.

Downstream nations Cambodia and Vietnam fear that the huge freshwater fisheries that support a population of 60 million will be massively reduced. Food security will be undermined. Poverty will be increased and nutrition will decline.

80% of Cambodian protein comes from fish, most of it coming from the Mekong and Tonle Sap, the great lake is also an integral part of the same ecosystem connected directly to the Mekong via the Tonle Bassac River.

WWF programme officer in Cambodia Chit San Ath commented: "The Don Sahong Dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis. Have they forgotten that fish are our lifeline and the backbone of our economy?"

The Lao refusal to heed the chorus of opposition prompted a strong reaction from Cambodia-based ecologist Taber Hand, who told the Phnom Penh Post:

"I view it like a declaration of war by Laos on Cambodia and Vietnam. The impact of reducing fisheries and sediment flow is more subtle than most acts of war, but it has the same or greater effect on national security."

Laos unfazed by the anti-dam opposition

"For Laos, any dam is very important, because Laos has no other options to improve its economy", Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of Laos' Department of Energy Policy and Planning, told the Voice of America news site. "Our only option is to develop hydropower."

In fact Laos has several other development options and other alternative paths to generate energy. But solar energy, wind power and other clean and renewable technologies fail to generate the same financial concentrations that feed lucrative commissions to well-connected intermediaries, and subsidize the powerful contracting companies that benefit from big dam projects.

The neo-liberal ideology adopted by the ruling communist party state of Lao [the Lao PDR] pushes a policy of 'dam every river' to turn the landlocked country into "the battery of Asia" - an idea conceived by the World Bank and endorsed by the ADB - the Asia Development Bank.

This blind obsession with damming rivers regardless of the environmental consequences puts them on a collision course with downstream countries - Cambodia and Vietnam.

So far the the Mekong River Commission (MRC) - the inter-governmental agency that works with the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam on the "joint management of shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River" - has managed to avoid open conflict. But maybe not for much longer.

The toothless Mekong River Commission

The first big test of whether the MRC legal framework of consultation and cooperation could manage the conflict of interests between member states was the first Lao dam project - the Xayaburi dam project in 2011

The controversial dam was launched 2012 in defiance of protests from Cambodia and Vietnam that maintained the consultation process had not been completed. (See 'The Mekong must run free!', The Ecologist 14th December 2013.)

The Don Sahong dam is now the second attempt to resolve water disputes over dam projects under the auspices of the MRC. The lack of credible environmental impact studies and the flawed plans of the dam developer were exposed during a MRC-regional consultation in December 2014 hosted in Pakse Laos.

Malaysian dam developer Mega-First has opted to engineer a fish diversion (see map). With the dam blocking the Sahong channel, the scheme aims to divert fish away from the Sahong channel and the dam construction, to two other lesser channels, that are now being deepened and widened.

The grassroots communities in Cambodian and Vietnam participated in public forums to discuss the dam impacts, and in January 2015 the official National Mekong Committees reported back to the MRC that there was overwhelming opposition to the dam and even Thailand backed the chorus of complaint.

Vietnam's National Mekong Committee (NMC) insisted that the regional consultation process should be extended till the end of 2015, when the findings of a special study of hydropower impacts on the river would be completed. Cambodia and Thailand added their voice of concern and requested more time to study the dam project.

Laos: 'We don't need concensus!'

However the Lao government absolutely refused to consider any extension of the six-month period. As Daovong Phonekeo, director-general of Laos' Department of Energy Policy and Planning, told Voice of America: "For the development of the Mekong River, we don't need consensus!"

On a very narrow reading of the international agreement that created the MRC, the Lao government is correct. No country has any veto power. The CEO of the MRC Hans Guttman has clarified that "the MRC is not a regulatory body. We can only facilitate dialogue between member states, we cannot enforce anything."

However the 1995 Mekong Agreement also stipulates an important caveat that "no country has the unilateral right to use water without taking into account other riparian's rights."

The US-based International Rivers argues that "taking into account" by any reasonable interpretation must surely include taking into account the weight of riparian opposition overwhelmingly against the project.

All the regional NGOs likewise insist the Lao government PDR is obliged to halt the dam project order to avoid conflict between member states, and promote MRC's proclaimed spirit of international cooperation and equitable sharing of water resources.

MRC throws precaution to the winds

However the MRC's CEO Hans Guttman insisted: "Prior consultation is not a process to seek approval for a proposed project." This helped the Lao government to deflect the consultation away from the core issue of whether the dam should be built or not, into a secondary issue of how best to mitigate the negative consequences of the dam.

Dr. Philip Hirsch, director of Sydney University's Mekong Research Centre, told The Ecologist "In such an environmentally sensitive area you don't just go ahead with a project..It is a highly risky project so you need to take a precautionary approach, and make sure you have got it right, before you take a decision to build a dam."

But MRC Chief Mr. Guttman claimed the consultation had a far more limited role to restricted to " review the project, raise concerns, and see how problems can best be mitigated." Hirsch is astonished by this approach: "It is very odd that Mr. Guttman's statements only focus on mitigation, and ignore the precautionary principle."

Mega First, the Malaysian company planning to dam Hou Sahong, claims making adjacent channels wider and deeper will provide fish with a detour route.

But Dr So Nam, a Cambodian fisheries expert with the MRC, considered this Malaysian company had failed to provide any scientific proof that MRC's recommended guidelines of a 95% success rate for effective fish mitigation could be met.

So on what basis can the MRC secretariat possibly justify the sustainability of this dam project if there is no realistic prospect of fish mitigation?

Earthrights regional coordinator Daniel King is highly critical: "The attempt by the CEO of the Mekong Commission to limit consultation to dam mitigation measures is misleading, irresponsible and dangerous for the Mekong River's future."

Is the Mekong doomed?

If the Don Sahong dam goes ahead against all the weight of scientific evidence on hydropower impacts, in defiance of regional and riparian opposition, it is widely expected nine more dams will follow suit.

Vietnamese Mekong experts have concluded it will strip one of the world's great rivers of its natural flow, block sediment and destroy the river's immense biodiversity. In a nutshell the delta will be doomed.

River flows will change. Much of the rich sediment and nutrients that has long made the Vietnamese delta a rice bowl of the region will be blocked. The relentless damming of the river will exacerbate salinisation from the ocean. In a world already facing climate change and worsening natural disasters, here is a classic example of a man-made disaster rapidly unfolding.

Yet most aid from western governments and other donations to the MRC are targeted at adapting to climate change, rather than dealing with the far greater threat from the dams.

Vietnamese experts at the Delta's Cantho University are not happy with this exclusive focus, including Dr Duong Van Ni, Director of the Centre for Biodiversity, who insists that dams will erode all attempts to cope with climate change.

At a recent forum Dr Ni declared: "While we are busy adapting to climate change and rising sea levels, the dam will hit us like a rock to the back of the head."

Killing the Golden Goose

Wetlands specialist Nguyen Huu then reported that the loss of fish alone in the Mekong estimated at over $3 billion, outweighs the sum total of all the benefits that dams can offer from hydropower: in total the Mekong Delta alone earns $10 billion a year in export revenues alone, mostly from rice, fruit, and fish.

Yet the Delta is facing a devastating collapse. The domino effect of the dams will undermine the rice crop, fisheries and food security. With such a severely damaged agriculture. Mr Then predicts that if all the dams go ahead, in about 20 years time, Vietnam the second largest rice exporter in the world will have lost its capacity to export any rice at all.

If the delta is lost, the problems won't stop at Vietnam's borders. Not only the 18 million people living in the Delta will be the losers, but all who depend on her bounty. The removal of Vietnam from the list of top rice exporters would have a disastrous impact on global food security, and rice prices.

And the increasing poverty of small farmers and fishermen in all the Mekong countries that would follow is certain to trigger turbulence and instability along the banks of the Mekong and beyond, and a flux of millions of environmental refugees that is certain to prove unmanageable in this land-hungry region.

Yet the battle to Save the Mekong led by International Rivers and civil society organizations in the region has so far sadly failed to kindle an uprising of global outrage sufficient to tip the balance against the Don Sahong dam.

And the wider world remains largely ignorant of, and silent about about the mighty Mekong's imminent slow death by strangulation, and the crippling social, ecological, economic and human impacts impacts on the region and far beyond.



Tom Fawthrop is a freelance journalist working in Southeast Asia. 

Petition: 'Save the Mekong River- 60 Million people & 78 dolphins!' - hosted by Avaaz.

More information: Save the Mekong campaign.

Also on The Ecologist: 'The Mekong must run free!'

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