Opinion & Analysis

Impact of dam projects on the Mekong

Southeast Asia is experiencing an unprecedented hydropower boom – causing destruction to the ecosystem of the Mekong River, writes Andreas Neef. 

On 23 July, a massive dam break in Lao PDR’s southern Champasak Province killed 39 people with nearly 100 declared missing. The collapse of the Saddle Dam D, an auxiliary dam of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydropower project, swallowed several villages and displaced thousands of people in neighbouring Attapeu Province.

The disaster is a stark reminder of the increasing risks associated with rampant hydropower development along the Mekong River which runs through six countries and sustains the livelihoods of millions of people. Within hours, 6 billion cubic meters of water reached Strung Treng Province in neighbouring Cambodia, triggering the evacuation of some 1,300 families to higher ground.

Further downstream, in Cambodia’s Kratie Province, water levels reached alarming heights, threatening dozens of riverine communities. These communities were completely unprepared for this unseasonal flood, as a transboundary disaster warning system does not exist between the two countries.

Southeast Asia has experienced an unprecedented hydropower boom over the past decade. Until the end of the 20th century, the 4,800km Mekong River was one of the most unobstructed and biodiverse transboundary rivers in the world. Then China – which controls the upstream part of the Mekong – started to build a cascade of hydropower dams.

Farmers in Bokeo Province Northern Laos (Photo: Andreas Neef)

Farmers in Bokeo Province, northern Laos, prepare their fields along the Mekong River. The river provides livelihoods for more than 60 million people. (Photo: Andreas Neef)

With massive investment from neighbouring countries – particularly China and Thailand – Lao PDR followed suit with its own hydropower developments. The country is one of the poorest in the Asia-Pacific region but aspires to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’. It has already completed 11 dams, with another 11 currently under construction and many more in the planning stage. The Lao government aims to double its hydropower capacity between 2016 and 2020.

Downstream riparian countries, Cambodia and Vietnam, have expressed their concerns about upstream hydropower development for a long time. Their populations rely on the Mekong for fishing, irrigation, transport and tourism and fear disruptions to vital ecosystems and socio-cultural traditions.

Most concerning is the impact of dam constructions in China and Laos on the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, which has been described as Cambodia’s ‘beating heart’. It is sustained by the Mekong River and provides about 400,000 tons of fish annually, more than any other inland fishery in the world. Yet, disruptions to fish migration and reduced nutrient-rich sediment flow from upstream dam projects and riverbed mining constitute serious threats to this vital ecosystem.

Fishing communities in the Mekong River Cambodia (Photo: Andreas Neef)

Fishing communities in the Mekong River, south of Kratie, Cambodia. The value of wild fish caught annually in the Mekong has been estimated at US$11 billion. (Photo: Andreas Neef)

On its part, Cambodia has ambitious hydropower development plans too. Only about one-third of the country’s population has access to electricity which is primarily produced from imported fossil fuels. Earlier this year, a leaked report on a Chinese-backed plan to build Cambodia’s biggest dam at Sambor in Kratie Province suggested that the project would be detrimental to the food security of tens of thousands of people.

Yet it is not only human livelihoods that are at risk from hydropower dam construction. One of the few remaining populations of the critically endangered Irrawaddy River Dolphin is also threatened by the planned hydropower dam project at Sambor. The Mekong Giant Catfish – the world’s largest freshwater fish – has become near extinct as well. Both species have been venerated for centuries by rural communities along the Mekong River Basin.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) – an intergovernmental organisation that was established to coordinate water resource development among the Lower Mekong countries Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam – has not been effective in improving transboundary governance and stopping some of the most dangerous hydropower projects.

Women selling freshwater fish in Kratie Province, Cambodia (Photo Andreas Neef

Women selling freshwater fish in a riverside village in Kratie Province, Cambodia. Some 80% of Cambodians count on fish as their main source of protein. (Photo Andreas Neef)

Critics have argued that the MRC has remained largely unresponsive to human rights concerns and demands for greater transparency and participation. The Upper Mekong countries, China and Myanmar, have decided to remain outside of the MRC and only enjoy observer status, which further weakens its effectiveness.

It has become increasingly apparent that hydropower dams in Mainland Southeast Asia are not the providers of cheap and clean energy as their proponents want the public to believe. Often accompanied by forced displacement and cultural trauma, they come at extremely high environmental and social costs.

Yet those costs are borne disproportionately by the populations in the vicinity of the dams, not by the citizens in the major urban centres, such as Bangkok, whose insatiable appetite for electricity these hydropower projects are supposed to feed. 90 per cent of the energy that the hydropower dams in southern Laos will produce when their construction is completed will be exported to its neighbours.

There are – of course – viable alternatives to the destructive hydropower boom. Both Cambodia and Laos have favourable conditions for the production of solar and wind energy and the costs for new instalments have dropped dramatically in recent years, making such ‘new renewables’ economically much more attractive. Yet, political will to consider these more sustainable energy solutions has been lacking so far.

While villagers around the broken dam in southern Laos are recovering from trauma and scrambling to restore their livelihoods, the blame game has started. The Laotian government accused the project consortium of neglecting its responsibility for the loss of lives and damage to people’s property. The project’s main partner, South Korea’s SK Engineering & Construction, blamed the collapse on the unusually heavy monsoon rains. Its website features the slogan “harmonious development by fulfilling social responsibility”.

Andreas Neef is a professor in Development Studies at the University of Auckland. He has done extensive research on land grabbing and development-induced displacement in Southeast Asia.

– Asia Media Centre