The Mekong River Reaches Critical Point as the Xayaburi Dam Advances

Ame Trandem

 In a move that undermines the spirit of regional cooperation and threatens the Mekong River and its people, the government of Laos announced in early September that they are proceeding with the construction of the Xayaburi Dam.  This move blatantly bypasses regional agreement, which is a necessity for all proposed Mekong River mainstream projects, as outlined in the 1995 Mekong Agreement.  While this announcement is of no surprise for the people who have already been resettled to make way for the dam, the heavy costs associated with the project’s impacts to the world’s greatest freshwater fisheries is likely to bring greater surprise to millions of people living downstream.

As the first dam on the Mekong River, the Xayaburi Dam serves as an important test for whether the regional governments will pursue decisions consistent with science.  To date, Laos has put faith in unproven technologies being offered by its hired-gun consultants, the Finnish-Swiss company Pöyry and the French company Compagnie Nationale du Rhône, as a means to mitigate the Xayaburi Dam’s impacts to fisheries and sediment flows.  This includes fish passage devices and the notion of a “transparent dam” that somehow allows sediments to pass through it. However, these technologies have been offered without first collecting required baseline data or carrying out a transboundary environmental impact assessment. Furthermore, Laos and its consultants have continued to ignore the scientific consensus amongst the world’s top fishery experts that no technology currently exists to effectively mitigate the threat the Xayaburi Dam and other Mekong mainstream dams pose to the basin’s fisheries.  While the knowledge gaps associated with the Mekong River and the impacts of the mainstream dams remain high, scientific evidence of the dangers of damming the Mekong River has continued to mount. A glimpse into the findings of a few recent studies helps demonstrate the threat dams pose to the biodiversity and people of the Mekong River:

  • New research released in August by WWF in conjunction with the Australian National University, entitled ‘Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources,’ found that as the Mekong mainstream dams will greatly reduce fish catches, this will lead to a significant increase in demands on water and land resources necessary to replenish lost protein and calories associated with the river’s fisheries. In order to compensate for the food security losses, the study stated the most likely mitigation option would be to scale up existing livestock and non-fish milk products already grown and consumed within the region.  The study found that overall basin-wide water usage and pastoral land will need to increase by 4-7% and by 13-27% respectively, in order to help offset the impacts. Cambodia and Laos were also found to be the most vulnerable to these changes, requiring the most significant increases in water and land resources.  As these countries aspire to increase the exportation of commodities like rice, there would likely be big opportunity costs as large portions of the land and water would be required as a trade-off to replace protein in the region.   
  • An assessment of the conservation status of freshwater fish and other riparian species native to the Mekong River and the Indo-Burma region has recently been carried out, offering baseline information on the river’s biodiversity. The August report warns of the serious threat that dams on the Mekong River and its major tributaries will have on the region’s abundant fisheries and biodiversity.  Over the next decade, the proportion of fish species threatened by dams is estimated to increase from 19% to 28% and the mollusc species impacted by dams will increase from 24% to 39%.  The report entitled ‘The Status and Distribution of Freshwater Biodiversity in Indo-Burma,’ was published by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).  
  • A report released in September looked at the impacts of climate change and adaptation on a 56 km stretch of the Mekong River in Northeastern Cambodia and found that the Sambor Dam, one of the proposed Mekong mainstream dams located in Cambodia “is considered a key threat, with all ecosystems considered highly or extremely vulnerable, by local communities and experts alike; the dam threatens all ecosystem services, livelihoods and biodiversity values of the site.”  The report published by WWF and entitled ‘Resilience on the Mekong: A Vulnerability and Adaptation Assessment in North-east Cambodia’ recommends that the dam not be built.  Furthermore, the report warns that the proposed Stung Treng Dam on the Mekong River mainstream and the Lower Sesan 2 Dam on the Sesan River will have similar impacts on fisheries, riparian forests, agriculture and wetland areas, although less pronounced than the Sambor Dam.
  • Based on an investigation to the Xayaburi Dam site in June 2012, International Rivers has produced a report entitled ‘The Xayaburi Dam: Threatening Food Security in the Mekong,’ demonstrating that even in the early stages of the project’s construction, threats to food security are emerging in the first village resettled by the project, which is undermining Laos’ development goals.  The report documents how resettled communities are grappling with lost access to river’s natural resources and their livelihoods, while trying to survive on inadequate compensation packages. The report warns that the situation is likely to only get worse as more villages are resettled and the impacts of the dam begin to be felt.

While this research helps illustrate the environmental and social implications of the Mekong mainstream dams, more research is still required before an informed decision on the Xayaburi Dam can be made.  In December 2011, when the Mekong River Commission member countries of Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and Laos last met, they agreed to carry out a study of the transboundary impacts of the Mekong mainstream dams rather than make a decision on whether to build the Xayaburi Dam.  While this move was welcomed, the study has reportedly been sidelined by Laos, who has refused to comment on the study’s draft concept note. At the same time, unless construction on the Xayaburi Dam stops while the study is carried out, it will be impossible to gather all of the necessary data required to fully understand the impacts of the project and other mainstream dams.  

However, time is running short.  In an interview with the Vientiane Times on September 6th, Laos’ Deputy Minister of Energy and Mines Mr. Viraphonh Viravong stated “Laos … would like to confirm that it will develop the Xayaboury project….according to the schedule presented in our last presentation at site on July 16-17th, 2012, and will develop the project responsibly.” The schedule referred to includes finishing construction on the coffer dam by May 2013 and beginning construction on the dam’s spillway shortly afterwards. The coffer dam and other structures will divert the river, which could prevent fish from migrating past the dam site.

The battle to protect the Mekong River is likely to get more heated.  Laos’ statement that they are moving forward with the Xayaburi Dam’s construction is in direct conflict with the positions of the Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, who have demanded that further study be carried out on the project’s transboundary impacts before a decision is made whether to proceed with the project.  If Laos continues, a regional water conflict appears all the more likely.  Since Laos’ announcement, Vietnam’s President stated that “Tensions over water resources are threatening economic growth in many countries and presenting a source of conflict especially given the efforts of all countries to step up economic development.”  

While it’s unclear what will happen next with the Xayaburi Dam, more outreach on the ecological crisis that the Mekong mainstream dams is likely to trigger is urgently needed before it’s too late.  The new research on the Mekong mainstream dams outlined above serves as a good starting point for much- needed discussion in the region.

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On the Radio: The Mekong, Food Security, and Hydropower - Ame Trandem interviewed on Free Speech Radio News