Upstream or Downstream, We All Have the Same Mother

Pianporn Deetes, Living Rivers Siam; Carl Middleton, International Rivers
Thursday, March 26, 2009

MILLIONS in the Southeast Asian region's trans-boundary river basins are facing the devastating effects from planned hydropower development.

Sao Rawangsri, a 70-year-old Mekong River fisherman in Thailand's Chiang Khong District may have to give up his occupation.

"I am a fisherman, as was my father and his father. There used to be a lot of fish in the Mekong River. That is how we made our living. But the dams far up the river have destroyed it," he says, pointing towards the barriers that have been built upstream in China.

Sunday, March 22 was World Water Day, and a time to reflect upon the life-giving benefits that rivers provide to people and the planet. This year's theme was "Transboundary Water: Sharing Water, Sharing Opportunities" - a theme that is especially timely for the Mekong region.

The mighty Mekong River, shared by all the countries of mainland Southeast Asia, is now facing a serious threat. Over the past two years, eleven big hydropower dams have been proposed for the river's lower mainstream. Of these, nine dam sites are in Laos, including two shared projects with Thailand, and two are in Cambodia.

Building dams on the Mekong River's mainstream will have severe consequences on a regional scale. By blocking massive fish migrations, the dams place at risk the millions of people who depend upon the river for their income and food security. Experience around the world demonstrates that there is no way of mitigating the effects of such large dams' on river fisheries.

The Mekong River is home to one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world. Recent official estimates place the value of the river's wild-capture fisheries to be worth up to US$3 billion (Bt106 billion) annually - representing one quarter of the world's recorded freshwater fish catch. Yet, even this staggering figure understates the true value, as fisheries are also central to people's nutrition and food security. The region's rivers feed not only the communities living alongside them, but also the residents of the region's bustling towns and cities.

The Mekong River also has an extraordinary aquatic biodiversity, second only to the Amazon in South America. Building mainstream dams would push already endangered species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, the Mekong giant catfish and countless other migratory fish species to the brink of extinction; losing this ecological wealth would be a tragedy of global proportions.

The Mekong River is not alone. Another of the region's great rivers, the Salween, faces a similar impending threat. Nearly 20 mainstream dams have been proposed over the length of its course from China down to Thailand, and through war-torn Burma. And along each of the river's tributaries, scores more dams are planned.

They say that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So, too, to dam engineers do all rivers look like potential dam sites. Yet the decision-making processes for these mainstream dams are largely ignoring the potential harm to the rivers' biological and cultural richness. While there is greater acknowledgement globally that large dams can be hugely destructive forms of development, in the Mekong region these mainstream dams continue to be considered behind closed doors.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect these shared rivers' rich resources, rather than wrecking them, should be a high priority for the region's decision-makers.

Fortunately, times are changing. The energy revolution that is now sweeping the globe provides many new options to meet electricity demand, making river-destroying, large hydropower dams a technology of the last century. Electricity requirements can now be better met by improving energy efficiency and deploying recent innovations in decentralised and renewable energy technologies. By adopting policies that encourage investment in these new energy technologies, the Mekong governments could leapfrog the 1950s era of big dams entirely and start developing sustainable, modern economies without losing the benefits that healthy rivers bring.

Sao Rawangsri recently travelled from his Chiang Khong home to visit the Siphandone area of southern Laos, where one of the Mekong mainstream dams, the Don Sahong, is proposed.

"Fish in the Mekong there are so abundant. It is just like the old days in Chiang Khong," he observed.

He was dismayed that his own misfortune might be repeated for his fellow fishermen along the entire length of the Mekong.

"Our mother is being killed," Sao noted sadly.

Published in Nation newspaper, Thailand.

More information: 

Visit Save the Mekong Coalition website

Visit International Rivers Mekong Mainstream Dams campaign page