Report Urges Ten-Year Dam-Building Freeze on Mekong

Ame Trandem
Friday, December 10, 2010

The Mekong region is at a crossroads. A ground-breaking new report urging a 10-year dam-building freeze on the Mekong River mainstream has raised the profile of the risks of a dam- boom on the highly productive and valuable river, while also putting a spotlight on the decision-makers who will determine its fate. The debate is noticeably shifting away from strict belief that dams are the best way to serve regional energy needs, and toward increased recognition of the value of a healthy river that supports millions with its natural abundance.

The site of the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven planned Mekong mainstream dams.
The site of the Xayaburi Dam, the first of eleven planned Mekong mainstream dams.
Pianporn Deetes

While the report hasn't convinced all key stakeholders – some dam proponents are proposing business as usual – new and unconventional critics, like the US government and World Bank, have entered the fray by expressing support for the report's main findings on the value of a healthy Mekong.

The report, Strategic Environment Assessment of Hydropower on the Mekong Mainstream (SEA), cautions that the 11 large dams planned on the Lower Mekong River's mainstream would "fundamentally affect the integrity and the productivity of the Mekong aquatic system." This in turn would disrupt the world's largest inland fisheries and result in economic losses of nearly US$500 million per year. In a region where the majority of its population is rural and dependent on natu- ral resources, the dams would condemn millions of people to severe food shortages and increased poverty.

The SEA was commissioned by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), and is based on current state-of-the-art scientific knowledge of the river system combined with intensive consultation with regional governments, devel- opment partners and NGOs.

Due to the extent of the risk and scientific uncertainty, the report recommends that
decisions on mainstream dams be deferred for a decade. "The state of knowledge about the Mekong is not adequate for making informed and responsible decisions about mainstream dams at this time," the authors state.

While the Mekong dams have long been considered by many of the region's donors as a regional issue, the issue has now become global due to the scale of the dams' negative impacts.

The World Bank was first to publically welcome the report's findings upon its release in October, calling it "an important new body of information on the Mekong and the potential impacts of these projects on the river's mainstream." The World Bank also confirmed that it would not finance or invest in the projects.

US Senator Jim Webb, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, next warned that the US has "a strategic interest in averting regional conflict" and should consider withdrawing funding to the MRC if the dams proceed. This sentiment was echoed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during recent travels to the region, as she called on the Vietnamese and Cambodian governments to "pause before major construction continues."

Damn the torpedos

The million-dollar question now is whether the members of the MRC – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – will heed the warnings foretold by the report. Just weeks before the SEA was publicly released, the MRC announced the start of regional decision-making procedures for the Xayaburi Dam, the first of the planned mainstream dams.

As signatories of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, regional governments have committed to the equal and sustainable use of the Mekong River and thus must notify, consult, and then reach agreement with their neighbors on proposed mainstream projects. The SEA was commissioned as a first step toward this, in order for regional governments to understand the implications of the mainstream dams and provide recommendations on whether or not the projects should be pursued. The move forward with decision-making without consideration of the SEA has placed the legitimacy of the MRC as an advisor to regional governments into question.

The Save the Mekong coalition , an international coalition of NGOs, academics and friends working to keep the Mekong free-flowing, has called on the MRC to halt the decision-making process and cancel the Xayaburi Dam. In a letter submitted to the MRC, the coalition states: "Abundant evidence produced by the MRC itself has already demonstrated the Xayaburi dam to be exceptionally destructive, and a project that should not go ahead." As the MRC has failed to take the most basic of measures in ensuring public participation, transparency and due consideration of the SEA report, the coalition states that the MRC is "racing irresponsibly ahead in support of the construction of the Xayaburi Dam." The MRC has yet to announce how it plans to give the report the due diligence it requires.

Despite the MRC's silence, the SEA is now stirring a debate within regional government agencies. Thai Senator Prasarn Marukpitak, Chair of the Senate sub-committee on Mekong Development helped lead a roundtable discussion on the issue among committee members. One clear message from this roundtable was the need for greater dialogue within Thailand. The Thai Senate is now planning to organize a forum on the SEA and Xayaburi Dam with the Thailand National Mekong Committee. Additionally, a seminar organized by Save the Mekong partners inside Vietnam was well attended by deputies of Vietnam's National Assembly, who voiced worry over the impacts the dams would cause to the Mekong Delta and the rise in regional tensions that could result.

As the warnings of a disaster on the Mekong continue to resonate in the region, International Rivers, along with the Save the Mekong coalition, will continue to press for a moratorium on mainstream dam building, while working to ensure that the voices and needs of riparian communities are a central aspect of regional decision making. Together, we will challenge the Mekong River Commission and its development partners to live up to international standards of accountability, transparency and public participation, and to work toward finding solutions for the region's energy needs that don't sacrifice this magnificent lifeline. With so much at stake, the need is both urgent and tremendous.

Key Findings of the SEA

  • The dams would turn more than half the Mekong into a series of reservoirs
  • Thedams would block important fish migration routes, resulting in US$476 million per year in lost fisheries income.
  • Fisheries are the main source of protein in the region, but Cambodia and Laos would be the hardest hit, as little to no alternatives exist. Livestock produc- tion would be unable to compensate for the loss.
  • By inundating agricultural land and blocking vital sediment and nutrient flows, the dams would reduce agricultural productivity by more than $25 million/year.
  • As a biodiversity hotspot, the dams would lead to permanent losses of species of global importance. Some areas of the Mekong would see losses of up to half the recorded species, along with the extinction of flagship species such as the Giant Mekong Catfish and Irrawaddy dolphin.
  • The dams would contribute to growing inequality in the region, as the region's poor would suffer the greatest impacts.
  • Many of the risks associated with the dams cannot be mitigated and would represent losses of economic, social and environmental assets.
  • Recommendations include a 10-year deferment in decision making, the full translation and systematic distribution of the SEA report, further studies to be undertaken, and that the mainstream never be used as a test case.