By Richard Finney
The four member countries of the Mekong River Commission confronted predictions of social and environmental disaster if damming and other development projects in the region are allowed to proceed as planned.
The warnings, contained in a 3,600-page report prepared by the MRC Council, point to negative trade-offs between water, energy, and food resulting from the construction of eleven large hydropower dams on the Mekong’s main stream, and 120 tributary dams planned over the next 20 years.
Fish stocks will be especially hard hit, with an estimated loss of 30 to 40 percent of current fisheries by 2040 and an almost total loss of sediment flow to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam by that same year, according to the report.
An April 5 statement by environmental watchdog International Rivers warns that as dams come on line, “these impacts are expected to result in a drastic reduction in food security and agricultural productivity, alongside increased poverty levels and heightened climate vulnerability in much of the Lower Mekong Basin.”
Meanwhile, in an April 5 statement following the third MRC Summit, held this week in Siem Reap, Cambodia, the prime ministers of the four MRC member countries—Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand—pledged to consider the Council’s findings in planning future policy.
In a separate statement, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc called however for “concrete and timely action,” according to an April 6 article in The Phnom Penh Post.
“Mekong water resources have been degraded both in quantity and quality, the amounts of alluvium and nutrients are decreasing and the ecosystem and environment are seriously deteriorated,” Nguyen said, quoted in The Post.
These impacts are “more permanent and severe” in the Mekong’s lower basin, and especially in Vietnam’s delta, Nguyen said, adding that the region now suffers from protracted drought, seawater intrusion into farming land, and the erosion of coastlines and riverbanks.
“The livelihoods of over 20 million people are under threat,” Nguyen said.
Dams will proceed
Laos meanwhile vowed to proceed with plans to build a string of dams on the Mekong, with Lao National Mekong Committee chairperson Sommad Pholsena saying the country’s hydropower projects are being planned and built in accordance with MRC rules and procedures.
“The Lao PDR [People’s Democratic Republic] stands with strong commitment to live in harmony with our neighboring countries,” Sommad told MRC delegates in Siem Reap on April 4, according to a report by the Vientiane Times.
The Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams on Laos’s Mekong mainstream are now nearing completion, but public information on these projects is still incomplete, International Rivers said in its April 5 statement.
“At this 3rd MRC Summit, we call on the leaders of the lower Mekong governments to recognize the important findings and recommendations of the Council study and to urge a moratorium on further hydropower construction within the Mekong Basin until a regional study of renewable energy technologies and alternatives is completed,” International Rivers said.
Dams on the Mekong, which originates in western China, have a particularly adverse impact on downriver countries Vietnam and Cambodia, while their upriver neighbors reap the benefits of hydropower projects, experts say.