Governments Must Chart a New Course for the Mekong River

Drought in Vietnam southern and central regions devastated agricultural land
Drought in Vietnam southern and central regions devastated agricultural land
Photo: Le Hoang Vu, Thanh Nien News

2016 brought the worst drought in nearly a decade to the Mekong Delta. The severe drought compounded water shortages along the length of the lower Mekong River, resulting in the lowest water levels since 1926. The impacts on farmers, fishermen and agriculture throughout the Mekong Region were devastating. Fishing communities in the Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia reported that water levels dropped by three meters, preventing the lake from completing its natural flood cycle and expanding into surrounding forests, which are vital areas for fish to spawn. In the Delta – Vietnam’s “rice bowl” – the Mekong River’s low water levels reduced its capacity to hold back seawater, resulting in saltwater intrusion up to 90 kilometers inland, which decimated rice paddies and food supplies in Southern Vietnam.

The drought magnified the increasing pressures and the uncertainty facing the Mekong River due to hydropower development and climate change. 2016 is estimated to surpass last year as the hottest on record. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPPC) regional predictions have found that Southeast Asia will be hit particularly hard by climate change, and there is already considerable evidence of these impacts. However, it is not only extreme weather – reduced rainfall and excessive heat – which have dramatically affected water levels in the Mekong River: Unsustainable hydropower development along the mainstream and its tributaries is greatly exacerbating the problem.

Seven large dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River in China have replaced the natural river flow with artificial water releases that fluctuate unpredictably. Meanwhile, the pace of dam building on the lower stretch of the river is accelerating, counter to the warnings and recommendations of scientists and basin-wide studies, which have predicted irreversible consequences for the region’s lifeline. In January 2016, the government of Laos announced a groundbreaking ceremony marking the start to construction for the Don Sahong Dam. The speed with which project decisions have been made for the second Mekong mainstream dam defy widespread concern expressed by neighboring countries and Mekong communities regarding the project’s transboundary impacts and the threat to the river’s rich fisheries and regional food security. As with the Xayaburi Dam, construction on the Don Sahong Dam began without any formal conclusion to the Mekong River Commission’s Prior Consultation Process (PNPCA), and with no indication of how concerns raised during regional consultations would be addressed by project developers.

Despite unaddressed concerns over the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams, and questions over the legitimacy of the MRC’s PNPCA process, in November 2016, the government of Laos announced their intention to move forward with a third dam on the Mekong mainstream, the Pak Beng Dam, close to the Thai border. This latest development reflects a haphazard project-by-project approach to the construction of lower Mekong mainstream dams, failing to properly address the cumulative impacts and increased risks from each new project.

The current trajectory of dam building, particularly in an era of climate uncertainty, is dangerously shortsighted. The events of 2016 should set off alarm bells for Mekong governments, as well as international donors concerned with the Mekong River. While the region cannot escape the effects of climate change, it can avoid the slow-motion humanitarian disaster in the making, by preserving the Mekong River and investing in renewable energy alternatives to meet demand, not only in urban centers, but also among rural populations.

The prosperity of the Mekong region and its future is intrinsically linked to the health of the Mekong River. The river’s connectivity is key to its ecological riches: Its fisheries and other natural resources depend on a complex sediment and nutrient balance, as does the sustainable production of food crops on its fertile floodplains. Disrupting that balance is already having significant impact; it will only worsen as climate impacts increase and further dams move forward. In addition to its rich natural resources and the important biodiversity habitat that it provides, the Mekong River is vital in the fight against climate change. Rivers play a critical role in helping vulnerable communities adapt to climate change and in mitigating the effects of extreme weather events. For example, the Mekong River is essential in defending the highly productive Mekong Delta from rising sea levels. The evidence of what happens when it is not able to fulfill this role has already been seen in Vietnam.

The increasing effects of climate change and future uncertainty also place the viability of hydropower at risk. Large dams have always been based on the assumption that future hydrological patterns will mirror those of the past, but this is no longer true. More frequent droughts will make many hydropower projects uneconomic, while more extreme rainfall increases the risk of dam failures and catastrophic flood releases.

Meanwhile worldwide investment in solar and wind projects has far outstripped new investment in hydropower. A 2016 report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance, found that in 2015, $271 billion was invested in new wind and solar facilities, compared to $130 billion in fossil fuels and $23 billion in large hydropower. Mekong countries have an opportunity to become leaders in clean, renewable electricity solutions. In order to do so, governments must re-think hydropower development, and remove the “hydropower blinders” that inhibit investment in alternatives such as wind and solar.

There is little question that 2017 will bring more unpredictability to the vulnerable Mekong River and her people. How will Mekong governments choose to respond? With the New Year comes an opportunity to change course – to stem the tide of unsustainable hydropower development and instead invest in sustaining the health of Mekong River as a regional asset capable of supporting millions of people throughout Southeast Asia.

Monday, January 2, 2017