Mekong Dams Threaten Food Supply for Thousands

By William Boot 20 November 2013

Hydroelectric dam constructions on the Mekong River in Laos financed by foreign businesses could undermine the massive river’s fish stocks on which thousands of people Burmese depend for food, a US-based environmental organisation has warned.

A dam now under construction directly on the Mekong at Xayaburi and part financed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) is one such potential threat to fish stocks. But a new project just approved by the Lao government at Don Sahong, near the Lao-Cambodian border, poses an even bigger menace to fishing, said leading global river watchdog NGO International Rivers, based in California.

“The Don Sahong Dam is threatening to block the only channel of the Mekong that currently allows for year-round fish migrations on a large scale, while also wiping out one of the last pools of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphins,” said International Rivers.

The Mekong forms the border between Burma’s Shan State and Laos for more than 200 kilometres (124 miles) through the so-called Golden Triangle region.

“Over 22,000 primarily indigenous peoples live in the mountainous region of this isolated stretch of the river in Burma,” said the NGO Burma Rivers Network, which also campaigns against the disruptive effects of hydroelectric dams.

Fish from the Mekong, as well as the Salween and Irrawaddy rivers, provide up to 80 percent of protein needs for communities living alongside, said International Rivers. Dams built downstream on the Mekong will disrupt or prevent the seasonal migration upstream of fish and could thus drastically reduce the food supply of river-dwelling communities, the NGO said.

The Don Sahong project—clouded in secrecy and with even the identity of its main financial backers unclear—is “reckless and irresponsible,” International Rivers’ Southeast Asia Program Director Ame Trandem said in a statement this week.

“Scientific experts have warned that the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams have the potential to dramatically alter fish stocks and even wipe out species, leading to serious regional food security concerns,” Trandem said.

Both dams are being built despite objections by Cambodia and Vietnam, two member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) which is supposed to be a watchdog for the river shared by six countries though which it flows.

The MRC’s full members are Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. While Burma and China are not full members, they take part in meetings as “dialogue partners.”

The Xayaburi project in northern Laos will be capable of generating up to 1,280 megawatts of electricity—more than 25 percent of Burma’s existing power capacity—and the Don Sahong in southern Laos will generate 360 megawatts.

Most of the electricity is expected to be bought by Thailand.

“It is still unclear who is financing Don Sahong dam. One of major issues for Don Sahong, like other large-scaled project in the region, is the lack of transparency,” a Thailand coordinator for International Rivers, Pianporn Deetes, told The Irrawaddy.

“A main concern for both Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos is trans-boundary impacts on ecosystems and fish migration. The dams will create inevitably devastating impacts on riverine communities and dwellers whose livelihoods and food security depend on the Mekong River’s resources such as fisheries. This includes [communities] in Burma,” said Pianporn.

It is understood that two Malaysian engineering firms, led by Mega First Corporation, are to construct the Don Sahong dam, which the Lao government insists will go ahead even though the MRC has not yet discussed its possible impact and despite its location close to the Cambodian border.

International Rivers is urging MRC members and partners to take action to protect the Mekong according to the brief of their commission’s constitution.

“Laos has ignored advice provided by the MRC that the Don Sahong Dam must undergo the ‘prior consultation’ process, instead choosing only to notify neighboring countries of its unilateral decision to build the dam,” said Pianporn.

“The Lao government released the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment to neighboring countries and to the public only days before construction was set to begin on the Don Sahong coffer dam (temporary enclosure) and work camps. Such decisions should not be shrouded in a cloak of secrecy, but rather demand a regional decision that takes into account the opinions of millions of people whose lives depend on the Mekong,” Pianporn said.

According to International Rivers, Thailand’s EGAT is also at the forefront of plans for two hydroelectric dams on Burma’s Salween River—at Hut Gyi and Mai Tong, previously known as Ta Sang. It said fish stocks and local community food supplies would be disrupted if those projects went ahead.

Thailand aims to draw more 10,000 megawatts of electricity from hydro systems on rivers in Burma and Laos over the next 20 years, the governor of EGAT Sutat Patmasiriwat is on record as saying.

Burma is desperate for electricity to fuel its developing economy but the Naypyidaw government halted a massive hydro dam project on the Irrawaddy River at Myitsone on environmental grounds. Most of the electricity would have been transmitted into China’s Yunnan Province.

Public opposition to big-river dams is growing, not least in Thailand where not-in-my-backyard protests have virtually halted all new dam work and pushed EGAT to venture abroad.

Vietnam, which until now has relied on scores of small-to-medium-sized hydro dams to generate up to 60 percent of the country’s electricity, is scaling back not on environmental grounds but because electricity generation is variable and dependent on reservoir water levels.

However, countries such as Laos are being encouraged to promote dams by the World Bank which has once again embraced this “clean” energy source. A decade ago, the bank had abandoned financial support for large dams but has recently reversed that decision because of concerns about climate change triggered by burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

“The Mekong is in an extremely precarious situation. The full extent of the dams’ impact has yet to be understood,” said International Rivers’ Pianporn. “Trans-boundary impact assessments have not been carried out for the Don Sahong or Xayaburi dams, and the MRC’s study has yet to begin. Informed decisions are clearly taking a back seat to individual interests.”