Damming the Mekong - the myth of 'sustainable hydropower'

The construction of the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Tom Fawthrop.
The construction of the Xayaburi Dam. Photo: Tom Fawthrop.
Dam builders have a new mantra, writes Tom Fawthrop: 'sustainable hydropower'. Repeated at every opportunity, it is based on the unproven idea that large dams can be made 'sustainable' by promising future 'mitigation'. And so it is at the Don Sahong dam in Laos which is about to devastate the mighty Mekong and the 60 million people who depend on it for food and livelihood.
The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.

2016 will be a decisive year of no return for the unique biodiversity and the swirling currents of a free-flowing Mekong.

The struggle of local communities, NGOs and riparian governments to prevent the the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos from going ahead appears to have failed..

The dam has just been officially launched by the Laos government. Another dam project at Pak Beng is under preparation making it number 3 in a cascade of 11 dams.

The bulldozers and earth-moving machines of the Chinese dam-builder Sinohydro, have already invaded the pristine serenity of Four Thousand Islands (Sipangdon in Southern Laos), one of the world's finest wetlands and a paradise for eco-tourism.

Nearby a small group of Irrawaddy Dolphins must surely know their days are numbered. Less than two miles downstream from the dam-site in Laos, Cambodia, where 80% of the population depend on fish as their main source of protein, will be devastated by this dam construction that will block the main artery of fish migration between the two countries.

Scientists have been warning for many years, that the proposed cascade of 11 dams on the lower Mekong spell ecological and nutritional disaster, drastically reducing food security, and threatening the survival of the delta in Vietnam.

The (MRC) Mekong River Commission is mandated to protect the riverine environment, but is powerless to put any brakes on this headlong rush into hydropower.

The 'sustainable hydropower' discourse at odds with reality

The Laotian regime that tolerates no dissent at home, has been similarly dismissive of the strong opposition from regional NGOs and riparian governments.

The unilateral launch of the Xayaburi dam in 2012 and now the second dam on the mainstream of the Mekong, is turning the river away from the MRC objective of an international river of cooperation and friendship between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, into another conflict zone over the sharing of water resources.

Video: 'The Great Gamble' internet trailer.

However the Lao government is not under any pressure from any of the bodies that ought to be gtrievously concerned: the World Bank, WLE (Water, Land and Ecosystems, a consultancy group); the USAid-sponsored Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE); nor other bodies that adhere to the mantra of 'sustainable hydropower'.

This term identifies a discourse that argues a well-mitigated 'nice dam', does not inflict too much damage on the ecosystem. It is a position that offers great comfort and solace to dam developers, investors and banks under fire from environmentalists and scientists.

The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.

Within this cluster of concern about water governance and claims to protect the environment of the 4,880 kms long Mekong, there is a grand silence that greets the rapid decline of the region's longest river and the launch of another dam.

Kim Geheb Mekong region coordinator for the WLE - a research programme for Water, Land and Ecosystems argues the case for 'sustainable hydropower' and trade-offs.

"We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances", says Kim Geheb, WLE. "But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a 'good' dam."

Disastrous record, and the future looks even worse

The six dams built so far on the Mekong in China, and the two now being built on the Lower Mekong in Laos do not appear to fulfil any obvious criteria for the sustainability principle of what constitutes a 'good dam.'

The Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams along the Mekong are neither fair nor equitable, for the overwhelming majority of poor farming communities living downstream from these dams. These two dams both lack credible environmental impact assessments (EIAs), have failed to provide any trans-boundary studies, and have been launched in defiance of wide-ranging protest and riparian objections.

Latest data published by Catch and Culture MRC's fisheries publication shows that threat posed to the Mekong also has hidden economic costs that result from the damming of the Mekong, which hosts the world's largest inland fisheries valued at $11 billion.

Estimated fisheries contributed $2.8 billion to Cambodia's economy in 2015. That's a big part of Cambodia 's $16.71 billion GDP. These are figures for wild-capture fisheries directly under threat from hydro-electric dams.

Studies have shown that the projected loss of fisheries, crops and biodiversity caused by dams will result in a staggeringly high deficit, compared to the modest benefits from increased energy and electricity. The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion ( for 6 dams) and up to -21.8 $billion ( for 11 dams).

Even in economic terms it does not make good sense to build more large dams in a river blessed by such amazing ecological wealth.

The 'anticipated mitigation' game - who are they fooling?

Sustainable hydropower and its concern to minimise harm to the environment relies heavily on mitigation technology, and especially such devices as fish passage, fish ladders and even so-called 'fish-friendly' turbines.

Christy Owen, party leader of the MPE environmental partnership explained at a recent forum: "This work can help ensure that new development projects meet the needs of business, while minimizing harm to local communities and the environment."

Her statement assumes that no matter the high stakes, and the calamitous effects of 'bad dams', dams are automatically destined to go ahead after a measure of mitigation and refinement

Fish mitigation technology has mostly been applied and tested in northern climes - the rivers of North America, and parts of northern Europe. Importing this technology to the Mekong and other tropical rivers teeming with a vastly greater variety of fish species than in the rivers of colder countries, is seen by most fisheries experts as highly risky at best.

Hydropower consultant working with WWF Dr Jian-Hua Meng views the mitigation carried out by Swiss consultants on the Xayaburi dam as a huge gamble with the river's natural resources. "They are playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people. It would not be acceptable in Europe, so why is it different in Asia?"

The mitigation team employed by Mega-First, the Malaysia the developer of the Don Sahong dam, has been trying to construct a fish diversion plan to widen and deepen two much smaller channels than the Sahong channel. However the MRC panel of experts found no evidence that this engineering project would work.

Mekong specialist Dr Philip Hirsch, based at University of Sydney, commented: "After 30 years of studying dam impacts, I have yet to come across one, [dam] whose impacts have been well-mitigated. Let's start with dams that are already there, before using 'anticipated mitigation' as a pretext for going ahead with new projects."

The evidence is clear: there is nothing sustainable about large dams

A widely cited Oxford University study, published in the journal Energy Policy in March 2014, reviewed data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries, and concluded that large dams in general are not sustainable.

As the authors wrote in a statement attached to the study: "The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt owing to ill-advised construction of large dams."

The global governance debate has clearly shifted business towards paying more attention to environmental protection issues, but not enough to get Thai, Malaysian and Chinese companies to rethink their on-going strategy for damming the Mekong regardless of the consequences.

From his decades of research in the Mekong region Dr Philip Hirsch concludes: "The impacts of some dams are just too great to mitigate." The Oxford research makes it crystal clear that large dams should not go ahead, he adds.

As Thai environmentalists say: those who offer only unproven mitigation to the 60 million people who depend on a healthy free-flowing Mekong for their food security and livelihood, are selling them short, and abetting a human and ecological catastrophe.



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.

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