Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Mekong dams affect 300 million

Sept 21, 2011

The Mekong, the world's 10th longest river, has its source in the Tibetan plateau. With an estimated length of more than 2,900 miles, it flows through China's Yunnan region, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, then pours into the South China Sea. It is home to more than 1,200 different species of fish -- second in biodiversity to the Amazon. As an "interconnected system," what occurs in one area of the Mekong affects other areas.



More than 300 million people live around the Mekong. In Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, some 60 million people rely on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transportation. The lower Mekong basin, the world's biggest inland source of fish, has about 20 percent of the globe's freshwater fish yield. In 1992, the Asian Development Bank envisioned construction of a railway system, roads and bridges that would connect the Mekong's 300 million people -- had the 1997 Asian financial crisis not stalled its advancement.

Bloomberg Markets Magazine reported in October 2010 that China has constructed four hydropower dams on the Mekong to produce electricity to support China's rapid economic growth. The report noted China's first hydropower dam was completed in 1993 "without consulting its downstream neighbors" and with a desire to overtake Japan as the world's second-largest economy, China wants to build four more dams on the Mekong.

International Rivers, a California-based nonprofit group, reports Chinese banks and companies are involved in the construction of at least 251 dams in 68 countries. The Asia Sentinel references David Biello's report in Scientific American that in China, "a frenzy of building" dams has left China with "more dams -- 26,000 at last count -- than any other nation in the world."

The Sentinel reports top officials in the Chinese Communist Party "privately acknowledged" that China's biggest dam, the Three Gorges Dam on China's Yangtze River, has been "an environment and social disaster," resulting in ecological deterioration, erosion and landslides, algae blooms downstream, deteriorating aquatic life, silting of the dam. The officials allegedly warned hundreds of thousands more people may have to be moved, in addition to the 1.3 million who already have been displaced by the dam. The benefit? The dam produces electricity equivalent to that produced by 500 coal-fired power plants.

As Chinese dams are upstream from Southeast Asian nations, the downstream countries are affected by the fluctuations of water volume caused by the dams. People are inconvenienced. The source of their livelihood -- fish stocks and fish migration routes -- is affected. The reduction in the flow of nutrient-rich sediment harms agriculture and fish downstream. The largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, Cambodia's Tonle Sap, home to more than 400 species of fish and unreported species of mammals and reptiles, is immensely vulnerable.

With a reported 130 hydropower projects slated for the Mekong and its tributaries, International Rivers warns, "Dams would spell disaster for Mekong fisheries and ecology, a risk that millions of people in the region cannot afford to take."

"The Mekong mainstream should be off-limits to the region's dam builders," International Rivers declared.

Downstream governments have their own plans: Laos wants 10 hydropower dams and Cambodia wants two, near the border with Laos. According to a report, the 12 Mekong mainstream dams, with a capacity of 14,697 megawatts, would bring in some $3.7 billion of annual revenue, 31 percent of which would accrue to the governments, and transform 55 percent of downstream rivers into a reservoir with slow water movement.

A consulting firm in Australia said, "One dam across the lower Mekong mainstream commits the river to irrevocable change."

Last week, Zhang Hong wrote an article for the Beijing-based media group Caixin, "Development is for other people," on, which focuses on issues related to the environment in China, and global environmental and sustainability topics.

Zhang Hong and journalists from Hong Kong, Vietnam and Korea spent two days in Cambodia's northeastern Rattanakiri province at the invitation of the local non-governmental organization 3SPN -- 3S Rivers Protection Network -- initiated to support communities affected and threatened by hydropower dam construction on the Mekong tributaries of Sesan, Srepok, and Sekong.

"Downstream Cambodia is often affected by dams built beyond its borders," wrote Zhang Hong, who noted villagers' complaints about a dam built by Vietnam on Srepok that causes unpredictable water level changes, blocks migrating fishes' paths, causes vegetation to be submerged and reduces water flow. Villagers worry about what lies ahead. In 2008, the Cambodian government signed a memorandum of understanding with China's Guangxi Guigan Electric Power to construct two hydropower dams on Srepok to generate 300 megawatts and 100 magawatts of electricity, respectively.

Zhang Hong and his colleagues spent a day at a Jarai village of Padal Thom near Vietnam's border. The Vietnamese built five dams upstream on the Sesan River. With the dams in place, "there are no longer enough fish" at Sesan. In 2009, after Typhoon Ketsana, Sesan experienced a rare flood that took away the Jarais' livestock and poultry. The Jarais blamed the Vietnamese dams.

Whether at Srepok River or at Sesan River, villagers made clear they don't want dams or compensation, which likely would include relocation they believe will cause them to be in worse circumstances. "Farmers and fishermen don't seem to want dams, electricity or even compensation. Rather, they want to preserve their way of life," Zhang Hong reported.

A. Gaffar Peang-Meth, Ph.D., is retired from the University of Guam. Write him at

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