Concerns Raised over Mekong Mainstream Dams

Fergal Quinn
Friday, December 7, 2007

Article from The Cambodia Daily

    It's a critical source of livelihood for hundreds of thousands of people in Cambodia, but the future health of the entire lower section of the Mekong River will be in serious danger, according to international experts, if a series of planned hydropower dams in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia go ahead.  

    As private companies scramble to exploit the energy potential of the river, analysts warn that national interests are trumping transboundary cooperation, and the regional Mekong River Commission, which was set up to safeguard the river, is showing itself toothless and ineffective.   

    Plans dating to the mid-1990s to build six dams on the Mekong-four in Laos, one in Thailand and one in Kratie province-have been revived as part of efforts to find new energy sources for the fast-growing economies in the region.

   The dams are at Pak Beng, Xayabouri and Pak Lay in northern Laos; Don Sahong in southern Laos; Ban Koum in Thailand; and Sambor district in Kratie.

    Cambodia, which holds the rotating chair of the MRC this year, arguably has the most to lose from the adverse effects of the dam projects given its dependence on the fishing industry. And that may put Cambodia on a direct collision course with Laos as the Don Sahong dam in the Khone Falls area, just 1 km upstream from the Cambodian-Lao border, moves nearer to getting the green light.

    Don Sahong would be the first lower mainstream Mekong dam and the first step in Laos' oft-stated plan to be the "battery" for the Southeast Asian region, utilizing the Mekong River as the main means to do so.

    The Lao government intends to build new hydropower dams and coal-fuelled power plants to ultimately generate up to 20,000 megawatts of electricity, with the vast majority being sold to Thailand, and the remainder to Vietnam and Cambodia, according to a report in Thailand's The Nation newspaper in September.

    Experts worldwide predict that the planned dam in Don Sahong, which would produce 240 megawatt of electricity, would alone change the river's ecology and fish migration routes and have a devastating effect on fisheries downstream.

    The dam could also wipe out the Mekong's entire population of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin, according to a WWF report.

   In May, 25 scientists from around the world signed an open letter citing their concerns over the Don Sahong dam. The scientists said the dam's location on the river is probably the worst site possible on the Mekong because it is the point of maximum concentration of fish migration. The Mekong supports the world's largest freshwater fishery.

    "Ultimately it would have a hugely negative impact on fisheries-based livelihoods in [Cambodia]," the letter added.

   Ngy San, deputy executive director of the NGO Forum on Cambodia, said he believed the dams could be stopped and the environment protected if the political will existed, though he doubted the MRC was the forum for doing so.

    "The MRC is being used by some countries as a means to attract investment for projects that serve their own national interest as opposed to helping the river as a whole," Ngy San said.

   Cambodian officials have been making some diplomatic noise about the Don Sahong, with numerous comments emerging at the recent MRC annual meeting in Siem Reap province about the lack of transparency over the Lao government's plans for the dam.

    Cambodia's National Mekong River Committee Secretary-General Pich Dun said his organization faxed the Lao government this week about the proposed dam construction but had not received an adequate response.

    "We are waiting for an official reply before we decide what reaction to take," he added.
   International Rivers group spokesman Carl Middleton said that this year, as chair of the MRC, Cambodia was in an ideal position to make its concerns known.

    "As a downstream country, with a population heavily dependent on the Mekong River's fisheries, Cambodia should be pushing for greater disclosure of plans for mainstream dams proposed by Laos and Thailand," Middleton said.

    Lim Kean Hor, Cambodia's Minister for Water Resources and Meteorology and current chairman of the MRC, denied there was any concern on the Cambodian side about the dam plans in Laos.

    "We have a firm 1995 Mekong River Commission agreement to stick to, and no one would dare disobey it," Lim Kean Hor said, adding that the agreement states that no country can build dams on the Mekong or its tributaries without the agreement of the downriver countries that could be affected.

    "All Mekong countries have plans for dams but they are still researching," Lim Kean Hor said.
In March 2006, the Vientiane Times reported that Mega First Corporation Bhd from Malaysia had signed an agreement with the Lao government to conduct an 18-month feasibility study for the Don Sahong dam. More recently, it was announced that planning for the dam was in fact ahead of schedule.

    Ngy San said it was difficult for Cambodia to tell other countries to stop a hydropower dam, while they are still planning their own dam in Kratie.

    In May this year, a Chinese firm, which has not been identified, was given a license to study the feasibility of the Sambor dam project, according to Ministry for Mines and Energy Secretary of State Ith Praing.

   Ith Praing said in an interview earlier this week that Cambodia's lack of power-generating capacity has resulted in high electricity costs, which he said was stifling business investment.

    However, Ngy San said that being against the development of dams on the Mekong, such as that at Don Sahong, was not a regressive stance.

    "We are not against development but we are pointing out that the value of the fish catch that will be lost as a result of building these dams is much more than that of the income which may be generated by hydropower dams," he said.

    According to the World Fish Center, Cambodia's overall fishing sector accounts for 10 to 12 percent of gross domestic product and contributes proportionally more to income, jobs and food security of the Cambodian population than in any other country.

   "If the Mekong dams are will affect all Cambodians who depend on the natural resources of the Mekong River [and Tonle Sap] for their livelihoods," said Meach Mean, Acting Coordinator of 3S Rivers Protection Network.

    Lim Kean Hor acknowledged that any kind of dam can cause some problems, but he also suggested that the benefits of a dam might outweighed the disadvantages.

    "We must also think of the pros and cons of it," Lim Kean Hor said.   

    Another potential downside to large scale Mekong hydropower development is possible damage to the Tonle Sap, according to a Cambodian National Mekong Committee and World Fish Center report published this year.   

    The report envisioned an extreme development scenario with six proposed Mekong mainstream dams interrupting fish migration and depleting fish stocks. Even a small percentage loss in Cambodian fisheries would amount to tens of thousands of tons in fish and millions of dollars lost in revenue, which would affect millions of people with fisheries-associated livelihoods, the report said.

   The MRC in a statement last month said its role was more to facilitate cooperation between member states than to act as a guide for them in their plans for the river. The statement added that the MRC was governed by its member states, "and as such cannot nor should not presuppose decisions of the governments of the Member States."

    The Lao and Thai embassies did not reply to several written requests for comment.

    Phyrum Kov of the Economic Institute of Cambodia said that given Cambodia's strong economic growth, it was important that it have a sustainable source of electricity, rather than relying on oil and imported energy.

    Hydropower dams were an ideal way to help meet that need, Phyrum Kov said, adding that it was difficult to say precisely how many megawatts of new power was needed in Cambodia but 1,000 megawatts would probably be enough.

    But even in terms of hydropower, he said, a mainstream Mekong dam should still be the last option considered.

   "Other means of producing energy, such as more dams on tributaries must be fully explored before that is seriously considered." he added. (Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)