Damming on the “Mother River”

The Mekong River is the 12th longest river in the world and has the largest freshwater fisheries capture at about 2.3 million tons per year. The Mekong headwaters begin in the Tibetan plateau in China, pass the countries of Myanmar, Lao P.D.R., Thailand and Cambodia before forming the delta of southern Vietnam and flowing into the South China Sea. It plays a key role in the livelihoods of the basin populations since, in addition to the important fishery mentioned above; the basin area also supports irrigation for agriculture.

However, although there are 3 existing hydro-power dams in operation and another 2 currently under construction within the Chinese stretches of the Mekong, the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) comprised of most of Lao and Cambodia, as well as parts of Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar has as yet untapped energy potential – an estimated 30,000 MW, of which only 10% has been developed thus far. All that will soon change, on 5 November, 2012 the government of Lao approved of its first hydrological dam project on the main stem of the Mekong River and the first of 11 main stem dams planned for the LMB. The $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam will have a capacity of 1260MW of energy production potential.

So what are the implications and why does this matter? According to World Bank data for the region, kWh electricity consumption is rising (although, Lao specific data is lacking), and will surely only increase as populations grow and economies develop. The average price of electricity per kWh is $0.159 in Philadelphia (where I currently reside) whereas I paid $1 per kWh while living in Phnom Penh, Cambodia – and if my math isn’t off, that is a bit more than 6 times the price, yikes. In that case, shouldn’t there be dams built on the Mekong to harness all of that renewable energy, reduce the costs of living, and provide more and reliable sources of electricity? The answer to that question should take into account many more factors than the bottom-line of energy output.

As mentioned previously, the Mekong River is an enormously productive fishery and the fish migration along the River is a major feature of this, as can be seen on the (clickable)map below.

Fish migration MEKONG

These fish migrations, along with the continued flow of the Mekong’s waters, are key factors in the food security for the 60 million people of the LMB. Especially within the lower income countries, primary and secondary employment in the fishing sector is important to their livelihoods.

The area is also home to many unique species; this biodiversity is threatened by habitat loss and land-use changes which come about with infrastructure projects of all kinds.

Another factor to be taken into consideration are the issues of regional cooperation. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) is non-implementing agency created support collaboration of the Mekong basin countries (not including China). The MRC has made available transparent information about the Mekong, however, it is non-binding and despite several delays in the building of the Xayaburi dam and protest for more information about its potential impacts from the downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam, the government of Lao has proceeded with construction. This sets a precedent for inter-regional relations when dealing with future necessary development, countries might be less inclined take the pause to research and consider the implications of, or the other growth options to, their country’s economic imperatives. Additionally, as the dam will be built and financed by Thailand, with electricity initially going for the most part to Thailand, this raises questions of overall benefit to Lao and whether operations and energy output will be transferred to Lao later if there will be reduced capacity because of sedimentation, i.e., is Lao taking on all of the long-terms risks and gaining very little in exchange.

There isn’t a readily available answer, nor will there be a win-win solution. It seems that, in addition to main stem dams, 70 are being planned on the tributaries with greater negative predicted impacts. To learn more, there are many resources available online.

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