"Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over"
The Mekong river is facing big changes. There are plans to build 20 dams in China, Laos and Cambodia; other sources speak about up to 43 dams in total. The first four dams at the Upper Mekong in China are already operating. Four others are planned there, one of them is almost finished. Now Laos is planning a first Mekong dam at Sanyabury (Xayabury). What does that mean for the river, it's ecology and the people living around?
Huge Mekong is not only one of the biggest rivers in the world, but
also absolutely unique. Streaming down from the Tibetian plateau,
crossing the six countries Tibet-China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia
and Vietnam, after 4,800 km it reaches the South Chinese Sea at the
Vietnamese shore. The Chinese part is called the Upper Mekong or
Lancang River, the part from Burma/Laos on downwards is called the
This river is unique in three certain ways:
First it's biodiversity is extremely high; in fact it's hosting the second richest biodiversity of all the rivers in the world. Only the Amazon river in South America hosts a higher biodiversity. The Mekong is home to almost 1,000 freshwater fish species. Among them are more species of giant fish than in any other river in the world. The most famous one is the giant catfish, which grows up to 3 meters.
Second, the Mekong is the largest source of inland fishery in the world. It feeds some 65 million people. In Cambodia Mekong fish supplies 80 % of the protein nourishment of the whole population.
Third, the percentage of migratory fish is extremely high. Between 40 to 70 percent of the fish, including some of the biggest freshwater fish in the world, are migratory. Since the Lower Mekong river is still a free flowing river, yet there haven't any extincions been observed. Even the very big fish, like the giant catfish and the dogeating catfish, though critically endangered, still managed to survive.
For a more detailed description of the Mekong River look here.
Plans to build a dam some 30 km east of the small and remote provincial capital of Sanyabury in Laos date back to 2007. The Construction of infrastructure already started. Expected opening date is 2019. Costs: $3,5 billion; experience teaches that the first estimated costs of such big infrastructure projects frequently double over the time until completition. Height: 49 m, 32 m water depth, length 810 m, spillway capacity: 3,980 m3/s, volume: 0.225 km3, catchment area: 272,000 km2, surface area: 49 km2, maximum capacity: 1,260 MW. The Sayabury dam project is a large dam, under global standards among the 300 biggest in the world. 95% of the produced energy would be exported to Thailand. There are doubts about the long-term functionality of the dam. The reservoir could be filled with silt.
To inquire the impact of the dam project, an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) was compiled by Thai TEAM consultant Cie, an involved company. But, compared to expectations of independend critics, these report palliates the impact of the huge project. The main points are:
The Sanyabury dam will interfere with the entire flow of the Mekong
A lot of migratory species can not survive an interruption of their migration paths. The biodiversity of the river and it's surroundings will dramatically decrease. These changes are irreversible. A once extincted species will never ever reappear. WWF, UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Fish Center state that 229 fish species would be affected in their spawning and migratory patterns
The abundance of fish in the river will vanish; economic losses of the fisheries and especially a lack of food for millions of people are to expect
Irrigation of huge agricultural acreage will be impaired
If the Sanyabury dam is engineered, it will be a precedent for all the other planned dams on the Mekong
Resettlements have to be done
International Rivers, an American NGO, states, that 2,100 people have to be resettled, more than 202,000 people in the dam's area would suffer disadvantages due to losses of agricultural land, riverbank gardens, worsened access to forest recources and impossibility of gold panning.
"Meanwhile, local villagers living along the river voiced concern that the dam construction should not affect their original livelihood. A villager, who did not want to be named and lives near the Xayaburi site, said he had not been given much information about the impact of the dam. He said staff from a Thai construction company had surveyed the site and asked the villagers to move to another location. The villagers were told that the company will build their houses at another location and will also construct road, provide water supply and electricity. Additionally, villagers who own teak farms will be paid 150,000 kip ($19) per teak as compensation. The villagers were also worried that the construction of the dam might affect fisheries and fish migration in the Mekong River. A villager said the company staff had told them that they will build a fish ladder. Additionally, the company's staff also told them that they will build a special channel to facilitate passage for boats. This village is more than 150 years old, with most of the villagers making their money from fish harvesting and agricultural plantation. "We will not move to the other location until the construction of our new houses are finished," a 50-year-old villager said. Another 47-year-old villager said he does not want to move to the other location due to sentimental attachment for the present village. He said his village was located near the Mekong River and he could harvest fish to earn his livelihood. If he moves to the other location, he is not sure what he could do to earn his livelihood. About 780 people live in his village. All of them have to move to the other location when the dam construction starts. Most of the villagers in his village are farmers and fishermen. "Villagers are now worried about their future as they do not want to move to the other"
A volunteer of International Rivers visited the building site recently.
Charming, sleepy Provincial Capital Sanyabury, some 30 km West of the Dam Site.
Image: Asienreisender, July 2011
Opposition to the project comes from the people who live in the catchment area of the dam and downstreams and following institutions (not complete):
Mekong River Commission (MRC)
The littoral states Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand
Save the Mekong coalition
World Wildlife Fund (WWF)
Strategic Environmental Assessment
In October 2009 there was a campaign, reaching 23,000 signatures to the prime ministers of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The petition was for keeping the whole Lower Mekong free of dams at all. In September 2010, another campaign from 24,000 people from Northeast and North Thailand, submitted a petition to Thailand's prime minister Abhisit in demand to cancel the Sanyabury dam.
World Wildilfe Fund, World Fish Centre, United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) criticised the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), initiated by the Laotion government and carried out by the Thai TEAM consultant Cie, were "woefully inadequate" and were far below international standards for such studies.
"The review finds the proposed fish passes for the dam ignore design guidelines, lack critical detail including any specification of target."
Fish passes in Europe and North America worked partially out their purposes, but there are completely different kinds of fish living. In these Northern countries the fish passes are designed mostly for salmons and other kind of fish, who are much more able to jump over distances. The Mekong species fail to jump over barriers.
"WWF fears a much larger scale repeat of the environmental damage of the dam on the Mun River in Thailand, a key Mekong tributary. After similar bland assurances of only low level impacts on fisheries prior to construction, the first decade of the dam's operation saw damaging impacts on 85 per cent of fish species present before the dam's construction, with 56 species disappearing entirely and reduced catches for a further 169 species, according to a World Commission on Dams study."
But not only that. The Mun river dam in Thailand is a perfect example for a failure of official predictions and assurances. The productivity of the Mun river dam fell down to only fourty percent after the first few years in operation, due to accumulation of silt. Even the expectations of the investors were disappointed. Instead of an annual profit of 12% they gain only 5%.
The MRC predicts if Sanyabury dam goes ahead, it would
"...fundamentally undermine the abundance, productivity and diversity of the Mekong fish resources".
With all the consequences for the diet of about 65 million people living from the river's fish abundance and the irrigation of agricultural land only possible due to the river's flow as it is now.
Milton Osborn, a connoisseur of the Mekong who wrote widely about it, says:
"The future scenario is of the Mekong ceasing to be a bounteous source of fish and guarantor of agricultural richness, with the great river below China becoming little more than a series of unproductive lakes."
The dam would block a fish migration route of alone 23 certain fish species that travel from Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia - near famous Angkor/Siem Reap - riverupwards passing over the site of the planned dam. World Fish Centre and Scientists from around the world agree that there is no possible mitigation technology to deal with the problem. All the areas downstream the dam would suffer the alternation of water flows, silt and nutrients of an ecological system which is running since tenthousands of years. That alone means a huge impact for nature, fishery, rice production and agriculture in general and the national economies of the concerned countries.
Although the Mekong River Commission members are obliged to announce such planned infrastructure projects on the Mekong to the other members, Laos can still legally build the dam, nevertheless to the disagreements of the other members and their concerns. Civil rights movements and affected communities have actually no legal rights to oppose the project. It's rather to fear that resistance against a resettlement would be broken by police or military forces. Although there are tensions among the littoral states about the project, Cambodian Prime minister Hun Sen gave a statement that environmental groups must not be "too extreme" and defended the right of Lower Mekong countries to build dams on the river. Cambodia is itself planning three dams on the Mekong.
Since the Sanyabury dam is a precedent for all the other dams, dozens in total, it's fulfilling would trigger a serial of other dam projects, destroying the natural habitats of the Mekong forever.
Since the Sanyabury dam would be the first dam built on the Lower Mekong River it's significance lies in the precedence it would give at least to all the other eleven dams, whose plans are already in the drawer. The huge consequences are described above: The extinction of many species, the end of food abundance in fisheries and agriculture. Some 65 million people would be deprived of their food origins, with all the sources of income connected to fishing and agriculture. And there is no alternative for them. The next step would be further empoverishment of masses of people, waves of migration, conflicts. The river passes through six countries. Some of them have had bloody conflicts in the past and even in the present. Therefore a relentless management of the river could trigger serious crisis of food and water shortages, prolonged floods and droughts and maybe even armed conflicts in mid or long term.
Concerning is also the political situation in all the littorial countries. Freedom of speech and publishing is not given. That means a great barrier for informing people about what's going on and how serious the impacts of political plans can be for them. Brave publishers always risk fines, imprisonment and other restrictions when informing the public. Taking part on a demonstration is risky, attendees might have to face disadvantages, imprisonment or open violence.
Most influencial opposition is coming from Vietnam and Cambodia, partially from Thailand also. That is because there are big industries endangered. Not only the huge fishing industries along the river. Concidered that Thailand is still the largest rice exporter in the world, and most of the rice fields are situated in the northeastern plains of the country, neighbouring the Mekong River, the dam(s) would cause an huge impact on these industries. A similar situation is given in Vietnam, where are no dams planned, but what would have to suffer all the consequences of the upstream dams. That's why Vietnam is the biggest opponent to the project(s).
An interesting observation on the research for this article was that there is not only much critics on the dam project, what is appreciated by the author, but no consideration of the socioeconomic background of the project. Big money is playing here, on the search for investment. That's part of what is called the "real economy", unlike the "virtual economy" of the stock exchanges. It's about electricity, energy in general. Doubtless, we all need a certain supply of energy, that makes the difference in living today and how was life in the past. But, how much energy do we really need? 95% of the produced electricity of the planned Sanyabury dam is supposed to be exported to Thailands booming industries. There is no critics about that. The industries produce a lot of cheap, useless consumer goods, ending up rather earlier than later as dump. Polluting the nature manifold: Producing energy, exploiting natural resources, producing consumer goods in factories, all the transport what is necessary to carry raw materials and final products to their destinations, and finally it ends up on the waste disposal site, or, how it is frequently the case in so called "Third World Countries", in the nature directly again.
The question seems rather why we don't save energy and resources in general. There is no doubt that there are great potentials to save energy everywhere, and a civilized society could come along with much less than it is consuming now. But this question is almost never asked. Asking this question would mean to question the whole modern global society and how it is constituted.
Modern society is based on money, debt, profit, interest rates, inflation and growth. Economies must grow, otherwise they fall back. Laos is a poor, weak, small country very much back in time. A journey through Laos gives the Western traveller impressions from long forgotten times. The people are poor and live very simple. Laos' only chance to develop in this global socioeconomic system is to exploit it's natural resources. It must attract foreign investment (e.g. from China and Thailand), because it hasn't even itself neither the financial means nor the technical know-how for any bigger infrastructure projects. So the little country is going to be sold out to it's rich neighbours. As a state it has no alternative to follow this path of development.
Criticising the dam is necessary. No more dam should be build on the whole river, including China. But one mustn't be ignorant about the socialeconomic context. States have no alternative than to take part in the race for development. It's the system, stupid!
Another significant aspect is the fact, that in a free market economy energy is competing with food. The global socioeconomic system is not a system for distributing necessary goods for the needs of the people. We have the same conflict since long in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and other equatorial countries, where on large scales of agricultural acreage not food is cultivated but palm oil. It's a system in which the highest profit counts. That means in practice: if an investment in cluster bombs is more profitable than an investment in candies, investments will go into the production of cluster bombs. If an investment in energy is more profitable than an investment in food, energy is prefered. Profit over people.
There is much concern about the extincion of fish which is important for human nutrition. That's a real and deep concern. It's also an economic factor, and that's always the argument when it comes to negotiations. But there will be many more species extinct than edible fish. More creatures are living in and from the river, in the water, as birds, mammals, insects, plants in great variety. They seem forgotten. The Mekong River is a fascinating river, because he is still over long stretches quite untouched. The touristic boat tour from Houayxai/Chiang Khong to Luang Prabang lasts one to two days. The boat is passing all the time green, remote aereas. No big road is to see there, no city, no big traffic, no transmission lines. Here and there a hamlet, that's it. There is still space left for vulnerable animals and plants. That's a value also, I think.
You can get a lively impression of the passage from Huayxai to Luang Prabang when watching the video "On the Mekong".
There has no word been spoken in this article about the impact of the dams in China. That would be topic of another article. Their impact already is huge. But, China is a strong country, an emerging strong economy. No other country is in condition to set pressure on their decisions of "developing" their country. China is a one party dictatorship. The party does not allow any opposition. Opponents against the Three Gorges Dam in China suffered nasty penalties. It's a very difficult situation there for opponents. The situation in Laos is different. Laos is very much depending on the surrounding countries, also Vietnam. Pressure from this side seems to be the biggest hope at the moment to cancel the project.
Here you find an interesting article about the consequences of the Three Gorges Dam in China:
"You can't be neutral on a moving train."
Good, up-to-date sources of information provide following websites:
The Laotian government
Ch. Karnchang Public Company (Thailand) 57% share
PTT Pcl (PTT), Thailand's biggest energy company, has a 25% stake
Swiss-based AF Colenco
Thai TEAM consultants
Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand 12,5% stake
Ratchaburi Electricity Generating Holding Company
EGAT International Company
four major Thai banks (Kasikorn Bank, Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai Bank, and Siam Commercial Bank) are concidering to finance the project
Article from Sept. 25th, 2011
Updated on Sept. 27th, 2011