Originating on the Tibetan plateau and meandering through China, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia to the Vietnam Delta, the Mekong River feeds and sustains millions of people. In Thai and Lao languages, the word ‘Mekong’ connotes ‘mother.’ Together with its tributaries, the Mekong generates and supports some of the richest and most diverse ecosystems in the world.
This river system and its inestimable resources are facing rapid change through the construction of hydropower dams. For World Rivers Day, observed last week, we want to share our thoughts on the value of the Mekong and the implications of dam-building for a region and its people.
In a region such as the Mekong, rivers are a part of ‘the commons’: important shared resources belonging to no one nation but to all who are dependent on them. Likewise, the impacts of dams on rivers are often not confined within borders. The Don Sahong Dam in southern Laos is under development less than two kilometers from the Cambodian border. If built, this dam will block a major passage for the many species of fish migrating up and downstream to feed and to spawn, which provide an essential food and protein source for Cambodian people across the border. The dam is likely to cause severe harm to the livelihoods and health of fishing and farming communities. The project also threatens to destroy the last remaining population of endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, which are of important cultural significance to local people and form the backbone of community-based tourism projects in the area.
Despite these risks, the project developers have not yet conducted a transboundary environmental impact assessment for Don Sahong to properly study potential harm to people and biodiversity in Cambodia and other neighboring countries. The developers claim that they will be able to mitigate the negative effects of the project, however so far they have not provided any evidence that these measures will actually work on the Mekong. The project highlights the importance of transboundary studies to fully appreciate the impacts of hydropower projects and enable informed and participatory decision-making, including of those to be affected.
Cambodian communities rely heavily on fish from the Mekong and its tributaries as an essential source of food and livelihoods, with fish forming up to 80% of the protein in Cambodian diets. Many villages are situated along rivers, where the use of the water and its resources are a way of life. Healthy rivers support access to clean water, food, livelihoods and indigenous traditions and cultures.
Any visitor to Cambodia will notice that the country is undergoing rapid change through massive influxes of investment and development over the past decade. Increasingly, hydropower dams form a part of this change. The Lower Sesan 2 (LS2) dam is under construction on the Sesan River, a major tributary of the Mekong. Although a tributary, the Sesan River is an important migration route and breeding ground for fish species from the Mekong River. The dam will therefore affect many fish species in the broader Mekong, with one study predicting a 9.3% drop in fish stocks basin-wide and the loss of over 50 species to extinction. Experts have also warned that LS2 will contribute to the changing hydrology and flood patterns of the Mekong River and the connected Tonle Sap Lake, ‘the beating heart of Cambodia,’ affecting both ecosystems and agriculture. Rivers are complex systems, and changes due to a hydropower project in one part of a river can have much wider implications for the environment and communities up and downstream.
The LS2 dam will resettle nearly 5000 people, but threats to food security and sustainable livelihoods are likely to affect hundreds of thousands more. Lessons from China, one of the world’s biggest dam-builders, shows that damage to the sustainable livelihoods of resettled people and ‘dam migrants’ are one of the single largest social impacts of hydropower development. The issue is even more pressing in a country such as Cambodia, due to factors such as population density, resource scarcity, and a lack of institutional capacity to effectively manage social impacts and livelihoods transference.
Because of its importance as an international river, use of the Mekong must be managed through effective cooperation between nations in order to prevent conflict and maintain peace. For this reason, the Mekong River governments established the 1995 Mekong Agreement, designed as a means to resolve and address issues and disputes. The Xayaburi dam, now under construction in Lao PDR, has, however, revealed the failures of this regional water governance framework.
The Xayaburi dam has proved highly controversial – as the first dam on the Lower Mekong River and as a project with potential for severe impacts on the environmental and livelihoods up and downstream. Despite a failure to reach regional agreement amongst the governments through the Mekong Agreement’s Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), Laos has pushed the project forward while failing to respond to requests from neighboring countries for a ten year postponement and additional impact studies.
As well as proving an inadequate tool for cooperation and resolution of disputes on the use of the Mekong, the PNPCA does not provide the means to address the concerns of communities who stand to be affected by the dam. Instead, communities have resorted to the use of other channels, including filing a lawsuit in the Thai Administrative Court to revoke the Power Purchase Agreement signed by the Thai Electricity Generating Authority (EGAT) and calling on the Thai government to conduct public consultations around the potential harm to Thai communities (the case is currently ongoing).
The challenge in the Mekong region, while the Lao government positions itself to be the ‘battery of Southeast Asia’ and Cambodia steps up hydropower development plans to meet domestic energy needs, is the lack of effective mechanisms to guarantee that, in developing and using the shared resource of the Mekong River, the environment and livelihoods of local people are effectively protected. The critical question is whether and how Mekong countries can cooperate to establish such mechanisms in the future; to resolve conflict, maintain peace and sustain the river and its resources for the long term well-being of all Mekong people.
This post was written by Maureen Harris, former staff.