Threat to the Mekong River is Critical, Critics Say

It is starting to appear that nothing can save the 800,000 sq. km Mekong River basin, which provides vital sustenance for as many as 100 million people, from environmental depredation from dams all along the 4,350 km length of the mighty river that feeds it.

Over the objections of the Mekong River Commission, the Laotian government in July committed to the construction of a fifth dam on the river, making flows and levels more unpredictable and threatening the fish and wildlife on which the population depend.

From record lows in June and July to major flooding in parts of the basin in August and September, hydropower dams have exacerbated the impacts on the river and people. Large-scale dams, especially those planned for the Mekong mainstream, are a significant cause of – not the answer to – the Mekong crisis, environmentalists say.

As Asia Sentinel reported on July 15, climate change and the upstream dams on the river threaten the 125 km-long Tonle Sap, the Cambodian lake that is vital to the wellbeing of the country. Low water threatened the annual reversal of the flow of the river through the lake, which puts 11,000 to 16,000 sq km underwater annually, endangering globally important colonies of endangered waterbirds and fish. The water levels are the lowest seen in 100 years.

“Instead of taking urgent steps to address the rapid deterioration of the river system’s health and productivity, on which millions of people depend, the government of Laos formally notified the Mekong River Commission of its intention to build…the Luang Prabang dam,” the Save the Mekong Coalition, an environmentalist NGO said, calling for the dam and other planned mainstream dams to be cancelled.

The dams, according to the coalition, would transform the river into a series of lakes resulting in major impacts to the environment. They bid fair to make the Mekong one of the world’s most-blocked rivers, with unknown environmental consequences.

“If it is built, Luang Prabang dam, combined with the Pak Beng, Xayaburi and Pak Lay dams, would complete the transformation of the Mekong River along the entire stretch of northern Laos into a series of stepped lakes, resulting in major and irreversible damage to the health and productivity of the river,” the coalition said. “This means that the wide range of economic and social benefits that the river provides to society will be lost, and the river will become a water channel for electricity generation, primarily benefiting hydropower companies."

Laos, one of the world’s poorest countries, hemmed in by China, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, and regarding itself as “Asia’s Battery,” is engaged in damming all its rivers, in most cases multiple times, and exporting the electricity to its stronger, wealthier neighbors regardless of the danger to the natural ecology and to the people who depend on those rivers for transportation and food.

The Mekong River Commission has in the past tried with virtually no success to get Laos to slow its dam-building spree and to reconsider some of the projects, particularly the Xayaburi, the first on the lower Mekong and which is believed to eventually be the most environmentally destructive of all Lao dams. Yet more dams are under construction on Laos’ stretch of the Mekong, with cement blockades going up at Pak Beng and at Don Sahong near the Si Phan Don waterfalls practically right on the Cambodian border.

One of those dams, the Xe Pian Dam, collapsed in July 2018, producing a tidal wave of brown silted water that wiped out entire villages, killing dozens, if not hundreds. It was hoped that the government would regard the collapse as a tipping point in its headlong crusade to dam rivers. As the okay for the Luang Prabang project shows, that didn’t happen.

The Save the Mekong coalition asked that Vietnam reconsider its involvement in the Luang Prabang dam, whose lead developer is PV Power, A subsidiary of state-owned Petro Vietnam.

The involvement of a Vietnamese state-owned company is incongruous with repeated concerns expressed by the Vietnamese Government during the Prior Consultation processes for mainstream dams to date,” The Mekong coalition said. “Citing concerns over the impacts on the Mekong Delta, during the Xayaburi Prior Consultation process, the Vietnamese Government had called for Xayaburi and other planned mainstream dams to ‘be deferred for at least 10 years.’”

Clearly, that isn’t going to happen. PV Power, the coalition said, has a poor track record of hydropower projects in Laos. Despite being completed, the Xe Kaman 1 and 3 dams in Southern Laos are not functioning properly and have resulted in major impacts on affected communities.

“Given that Luang Prabang dam will exacerbate impacts on the Mekong River and Delta, the Vietnamese Government must reconsider its involvement in the project,” the coalition said.

The MRC Council Study, which assessed current and potential development plans, clearly shows that series of dams planned on the Mekong and its tributaries pose a serious threat to the ecological health, economic vitality, and food security of the region. With respect to mainstream dams, the MRC Council Study finds connectivity related impacts “are substantial and far-reaching and overshadow those of all other planned water resource developments in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

One of the Council Study’s key recommendations is for member governments to seriously consider renewable energy alternatives to large-scale dams. However, there is no indication that these recommendations are being taken up by lower Mekong governments or used to inform decision-making on mainstream dams.

A 2018 study by the Mekong River Commission, which has nominal authority over the construction on the river, notes that by 2040 Laos plans to export 11,739 MW of power to Thailand, while Thailand government plans indicate it will only need to import 4,274MW. This difference of nearly 7,500 MW is greater than the combined installed capacity of all the seven mainstream dams planned or under construction in Laos, the NGO said.

“More sustainable and equitable energy options and pathways which respect the rights of communities and meet the region’s water and energy needs are available,” the coalition said in a prepared release. “There is huge potential for energy efficiency and non-hydro-renewables in the region. A comprehensive options assessment could help identify more sustainable and equitable energy pathways and options for the region, which don’t require the destruction of river systems that millions depend on for their livelihoods.

It is unlikely that the NGO’s concerns will be heeded. Laos, whose infrastructure is undeveloped, and which is heavily dependent on capital-intensive natural resource exports, is selling itself to the rest of the region. Foreign direct investment is not only in high-profile hydropower dams along the Mekong but copper and gold mining, logging and construction with little or no regard for their environmental impacts. Nor is it likely that the proceeds will do much for the poverty-stricken people of Laos itself. They are likely to go into the pockets of those making the decisions.