In the Mekong River’s 4,800 km journey from the snow-capped mountains of Tibet to Vietnam delta, the Sipandon area in southern Laos stands out as a critical part of the river‘s ecosystem, blessed by raging waterfalls, picturesque islands and a small colony of endangered freshwater dolphins.
Sipandon – meaning 4,000 Islands – is an area of immense biodiversity, ecotourism and abundance of fish migration, but its survival is at serious risk from the hydropower Don Sahong dam, which is on the verge of construction.
"If this special wetlands zone is protected, it could be one of the great wonders of the world", Carl Grundy-Warr, a geography professor at the National university of Singapore (NUS) told Asia Sentinel.
But instead of signing up to the Ramsar Convention for Wetlands Protected Areas, the Lao government has opted for a dam that will block fish migration through the Sahong channel, bypassing the waterfall at Khone Phapeng.
Hundreds of NGOs object
Mega-First Malaysia, the Malaysia-based co-developer of the 256 mw dam project along with the Laotian government, faces opposition from hundreds of NGOs in Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. More than 300,000 people have signed petitions to attempt to stop the dam, and Cambodian communities have staged demonstrations.
Even after calls from Mekong River Commission experts and constant calls by the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam to suspend all construction, however, preparations have steamed ahead. But now there appears to be a glimmer of hope for the 60 million people whose lives depend on a healthy, free-flowing Mekong. Dam construction that had been scheduled to start last month has been delayed.
Mekong specialist Brian Eyler, a deputy director of the Washington, DC-based Stimson Center, views the delay as linked to “a recent flurry of meetings between the governments of Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia in the past two months,” trying to resolve the conflict over dams on the lower Mekong.
A spokesman for the Mekong River Commission confirmed that “the matter is no longer in the hands of the MRC. It’s now in the hands of the governments,” referring to the three member states but without any reported participation by Thailand.
Vientiane Remains Obdurate
Laos has up to now refused all requests from the riparian countries to engage in a joint scientific investigation of dam impacts and trans-boundary studies and suspend or postpone all dam construction on the mainstream river.
Eyler believes the current pause in the dam's development could be attributed to downstream neighbors putting diplomatic pressure on Laos.
The impact of this projected dam, the Xayaburi dam and nine more scheduled to be built across the Mekong would also have a devastating impact much farther downriver. Seven dams on the Chinese stretch have already reduced the natural flow of nutrient-rich sediment to the delta, the rice-bowl of Vietnam, which accounts for 20 percent of the world’s rice exports.
Research by wetlands specialist Nguyen Huu Thien based in the delta point to a grim future for 18 million people living there.
‘If all 11 dams go ahead on the Mekong, then in 20 years’ time, Vietnam will cease to be a rice exporter,” Thien said in an interview. “The delta will be sinking because the dams upstream will block the sediment. Any delta sinks when it is not replenished by sediment flow.”
If Vietnam is getting tougher with Laos, their long-time Indochina ally, it is hardly surprising. Laos unilaterally proceeded with the construction of the first dam on the lower Mekong – the Xayaburi dam, now 60 percent completed – and brushed aside demands by the riparian countries for comprehensive environmental impact studies. China’s Sinohydro has contracted to build the dam and has completed a bridge linking the damsite on an island to the mainland.
Photo credit: Tom Fawthrop
Still possibility of a deal
In spite of the well-advanced preparations to build the Don Sahong dam, in Eyler’s assessment there is still a chance of a last-minute deal.
“Given this high stakes situation where the future of the region is at risk,” he said, “we shouldn't see Don Sahong's construction as a foregone conclusion.”
Vietnam’s Deputy Prime Minister Hoang Trung Hai earlier this year cited the delta's importance to the development of southern Vietnam and the country as a whole, telling local media that: “The Mekong Delta supports 27 percent of Vietnam’s GDP, 90 percent of its rice exports and 60 percent of fishery exports and the region is facing enormous challenges to water resources.”
The Mekong supports the world’s largest inland fishery with an estimated annual harvest of 2.2 million tonnes of wild fish, annually worth US$7.8 billion according to a report released in October by Ian Cowx, director at the Institute of Fisheries at Hull University in the UK.
Mega-First counters that their dam will include extensive fish mitigation that would divert a wide variety of fish species away from the Sahong to smaller channels that have been widened and deepened. However, independent scientists have rejected these claims. Fish mitigation imported from other parts of the world, they argue has no track record of success when applied to tropical rivers.
Toothless river commission
Although during the MRC consultation process the overwhelming response from riverine communities Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam rejected the dam, the toothless Mekong River Commission has no veto right.
Duong Ni, director of the Center for Biodiversity at Can Tho University in the delta has expressed strong concern that the US-backed Lower Mekong Initiative has focused only on climate change while paying little attention to what scientists consider to be an even worse threat: the dams being built upstream.
“Dams will erode all attempts to cope with climate change,” Duong’s said. “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."
Laotian government planners believe that building hydropower dams to sell electricity to their power-hungry neighbors will generate the hard currency to escape its position as one of Asia’s poorest countries. Cambodia and Vietnam have so far failed to address Laos’s projected loss of revenue if they abandon the dams in deference to the urgent concerns of downstream nations
Research by the Stimson Center provides the outline of an alternative energy strategy that could protect the Mekong from more mainstream dams, and potentially generate even more income than their current strategy. In their latest paper New Narratives on the Mekong, they address this very point as part of an innovative plan for conflict-resolution on the Mekong.
Cooperation to supply energy grid?
Laos lacks a national electricity grid. If assistance were given to the land-locked country to create one, the Stimson report argues that could enable potentially more net export revenue with fewer mainstream dams while also reducing or eliminating the current need to import electricity from Thailand.
Laos is already building large numbers of dams elsewhere other tributaries to supply such a national grid, which would not generate the diplomatic fallout engendered by the Don Sahong dam conflict, and any other dam on this international river. International support for Vientiane to turn to renewable energy such as solar and wind-power could also play a part in the conflict resolution.
But if current diplomacy fails, then the Mekong River Commission, founded on the mantra that the Mekong is a river of international cooperation, friendship and respect for shared water resources, is clearly dead.
Tom Fawthrop (email@example.com) is a Chiang Mai-based journalist and filmmaker specializing in Southeast Asia.