Murdering the Mekong river

The Lao and Thai governments plan to build mainstream dams and irrigation take offs on the river. This will convert this mighty waterway into serried pools.

By Beaumont Smith
Published: Saturday 04 July 2015

The Mekong river is the stuff of legends. British travel writer H Warrington Smyth in 1895 wrote: “The first view of the Mekong fairly took one’s breath away.” He might be more breathless to hear of the multiple dams planned for this great river. Like the Indus, the Mekong is threatened with the death of a thousand cuts in the form of mainstream dams and irrigation take offs that threatens to convert this mighty waterway into serried pools.

But one dam, a seeming hydraulic Judas goat, is provoking unlikely coalitions between governments and non-profits, who have united in condemnation and disquiet amongst donors who fund the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The Lao and Thai governments, which have both suspended legally required due process in an unseemly rush to get a Mekong mainstream dam up and operational, are pushing the limits of regional diplomacy. The dam, to be situated downstream of the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang, is the first of a series planned for the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). Sean Foley, an environment consultant labelled the dam “the thick edge of the wedge”.

The Mekong river is the stuff of legends. British travel writer H Warrington Smyth in 1895 wrote: “The first view of the Mekong fairly took one’s breath away.”

One would think a river which feeds 40 million people would be accorded some respect. Not so. As Phillip Hirsch recently wrote in ChinaDialogue-a website devoted to the environment-China is planning Mekong mainstream dams on a scale that would make former American film director Cecil B DeMille envious. But all eyes are on Laos, which despite all contrary arguments, plans to begin work on a 1,260-megawatt (MW) mainstream dam in Sayaboury this year. These actions question the effectiveness and the role of MRC which receives about US $40 million per year from international donors and riparian governments to coordinate and manage the competing interests of nations through which the Mekong flows. MRC is not noted for transparency or its sensitivity to village-level interests, but its apparent impotence to take a stand on the dam, and the fact that MRC staff have been proxies appearing at consultations in place of representatives of CHo Karnchang, the private but highly connected Thai dam construction company. This has infuriated many.

Witoon Pemlpongsacharoen, director of Bangkok-based non-profit Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), suggested, “The energy is not needed.” “Thailand has regular power panics” to the advantage of the Thai stock market which wish to keep investments flowing. Banks and financiers make a profit from big projects, even if they are not effective. Politicians can reassure everyone that Thailand is not vulnerable to energy insecurity. Political and stock market pressures will make sure the dam gets built. “Do not forget the construction company CHo Karnchang, its subsidiaries and the banks that back it are all connected to big Thai families and the Democratic party,” he added.

“Sayaboury is 1,600 MW of power that is not needed. It effectively becomes a non-performing asset.”

Blue: Actual consumption and projections
Green: Buffer
Red: Projected needs or ‘Power panic’ indicating that Thailand already has more energy than is consumed. Growth is exponential, regardless of climate change imperatives to reduce energy consumption
Note years are Buddhist years. 2010 is represented by the red line
Source: Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA)


“We are sacrificing the environment to provide electricity surplus and money.You know that EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) and EGCO (Electricity Generating Public Company) bought shares in EDL (Electricité Du Laos) when it went public. There is no public participation in these deals even though there is blatant conflict of interest, as EGAT buys from its own companies,” said Pemlpongsacharoen.

“They say Laos participated in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) but who pays for the EIA? The company of course; and why are the documents not public?”

Agnieszka Kroskowska, an agricultural specialist with Helveta, a swiss association for international cooperation in Laos, ventured: “Laos has some very good and comprehensive laws governing the environmental and social impacts of big projects. I can’t understand why they are not being followed.”

41 fish species are at risk of extinction due to the construction of the dam in the Mekong.  For 23 migratory fish species, the dam will block a vital migration route.

Anne Sophie Gindroz, country director of Helvetas, also agreed. Obviously irritated, she added, “In 1995 the lower Mekong countries agreed to a protocol requiring them to notify, consult and then reach an agreement with their neighbors on proposed mainstream projects. In September 2010, the Sayaboury dam became the first dam to initiate what is called the PNPCA. The procedure provides a framework for MRC to reach an agreement on how Mekong projects will be handled. However, there are serious problems with the PNPCA process, especially in terms of transparency and participation which make it highly unlikely this process can ever best practice standards or gain legitimacy with the public.”

She had detailed the location and logistics on LaoFAB, a local bulletin board,  “This dam will be located at the Kaeng Luang rapids, about 30 km east of Xayaburi town and 150 km downstream of Luang Prabang (and) require to resettle (sic) over 2,100 people in ten villages and would affect… the life of more than 202,000 farmers and fishers located in four districts…. 41 fish species are at risk of extinction... For 23 migratory fish species, the dam will block …vital migration route (of the) Mekong Giant Catfish. Lack of viable alternative livelihood options for the affected population and poor quality resettlement programme will affect adversely (the) concerned populations.”

The financial backers must also know this. The Kasikorn, Bangkok Bank, Krung Thai, and Siam Commercial Banks all have, at least on paper, some commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) though none appear to be signatory to the Equator Principle, a voluntary set of standards for assesssing and managing social and environmental risk in project financing. Carl Middleton of non-profit International Rivers commented: “All of the above major Thai commercial banks have some form of Corporate Governance and CSR commitment which vary between banks. The bottom line is fair treatment of wider society and the environment; compliance with relevant laws; transparency and information disclosure; and environmental conservation and support for local communities. Despite this, fundamental changes to the bank’s core business practices have not happened and therefore these policies are yet to be meaningfully implemented.”

Mekong is said to be the greatest inland fishery in the world, worth between two and four billion dollars per year.

But maybe that is not the point.

“All other factors such as obvious impoverishment of people and the environment become economic externalities and burden shifting. The Strategic Impact Assessment (SEA) has clearly shown that people will be made significantly poorer by the dam, so all this talk by the Laos government about poverty reduction is duplicitous,” Pemlpongsacharoen concluded.

“Many Thai construction companies, such as CH Karnchang, are now expanding aggressively outside the country, as Thai political problems have reduced local investment. The contract for the Xayaburi Dam hydropower plant could be worth tens of billions of baht (1 baht= 0.03 US $),” said Pornthip Soumalee, an activist working in Laos.

Fish Tales

Along with lending its name to a potent local whisky, the transboundary Mekong, is conceived in the Tibetan Plateau, descends through China, before wending its way through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and finally Vietnam where its lacework delta, fed by around 160-165 million tonnes of nutrient carrying silt per year, nurtures over half of Vietnam’s rice crop. The Mekong is said to be the greatest inland fishery in the world, worth between two and four billion dollars per year. Fish prices are rising.

Eric Baran of the World Fish Center in Cambodia reported the annual fish catch could exceed two million tonnes per annum after excluding coastal and lake fisheries.

This might be a conservative estimate. Phouane of Don Dek, a Mekong island near Laos southern border with Cambodia, smiled. “When the river runs high, my family can catch up to one tonne of fish per day in our li (ski jump-shaped fish trap).” World Fish Center suggests that economic gain from fisheries could well exceed gains from hydropower.
A Swiss consulting company, Colenco, which did not respond to emailed questions, has proposed a series of Heath Robinson solutions to river boat traffic and for fish migration as part of the feasibility study. Colenco’s proposed fish laddeas greeted with groans by fisheries experts, knowing that ladders are species specific. In a river with well over 100 species, such a solution is laughable.
To the environmental guardians the case against the dam is clear. The Mekong River Commission contracted a SEA of the effects of lower basin mainstream dams which would give experts time to study knock-on effects to the complex ecology of the river.

The team leader of that SEA of the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMRB), Australian Jeremy Carew Reid told me in Hanoi:

Life of more than 202,000 farmers and fishers located in four districts would be affected if the dam is constructed

“A ten-year moratorium is absolutely critical as a first step in relieving the pressure for mainstream damming. It was a compromise. The SEA report would have been rejected politically if we had called for a total ban. The member nations were inclined to go for no more than five years. We discussed with key non-profits and all felt that 10 years was long enough to cool off or disconnect the current wave of developer proposals and financing negotiations.  A great deal depends on how seriously the new riparian MRC takes the 10 years.  Also, we were discussing with key donors the possibility of a Norway-Indonesia type financial deal to save the Mekong, that is offering a couple of billion dollars to affected countries. Norway is doing it for Indonesian forests. Why can’t we do it for one of the world’s great rivers?”

Speaking to reporters in Hanoi last year, outgoing US Ambassador to Vietnam Michael W Michalak said, the US  endorsed the SEA’s recommendation, saying there should be “a pause” before further study of the issue. USAID is currently studying the economics of the dam. The results are due later this year.

But the 10-year moratorium was significantly absent from the MRC’s recent  Hanoi statement.

“Our understanding of riparian ecology is still incomplete,” says Carew Reid. “The contribution of flood plain and paddy fisheries to overall basin production and livelihoods is hard to quantify. We could not get agreement on the scale of the total system so ended up adopting very conservative figures,” Reid added.

“The region’s fresh water ecosystems and species are in big trouble even without mainstream dams. What little we know about the trends and species loss is all negative.”
If all proposed dams were built on the mainstream LMB, the losses in fisheries excluding delta and coastal fisheries are expected to amount to US $476 million per year, which might increase, as fish cannot migrate to spawn and scarcity drives up prices. Even if they make the heroic journey, resultant eggs and fry are mashed in the turbines. Imagine putting caviar in a blender.

In people terms, more than one million fisheries-dependent people could lose their livelihoods in Cambodia alone as a consequence, and the country would have difficulty generating alternative protein sources to make up for the fish loss. The same could be said of Laos. It is not merely the fish, but the recession and riverbank gardens along the Mekong’s entire course. As well, women gather and dry nutritious river weed, men and women pan for gold, and water livestock in the shallows. Chugging cargo and tourist boats dodge the huge rocks and sandbars that characterise this spectacular stretch.

Notably absent from the discussions have been the impact of slowing the river on endemic diseases such as schistosomiasis, reported to be spreading. The snails which carry this serious disease are averse to fast flowing water and rough rocky banks. Slowing the waters would be like giving the snails Viagra with severe local consequences and implications for tourism.

All of these factors should, some say, make a difference. Others rue that it might be too late.

But Pemlpongsacharoenmused, “The Chinese have a saying. You do not begin to grieve until you see the coffin.”

Apparently some MRC donors are very concerned.  While the response from the Australian Embassy was predictably formal, another outgoing diplomat revealed that the Australians, who funded the regional consultations, were less than impressed that Lao had been exempted from the list. “They were consulted during the feasibility and EIA stage,” MRC told them.

University of New South Wales political analyst, Carl Thayer, recently told the Sydney Morning Herald: “Australia faces difficult diplomatic times given Thailand and Lao's ambition to press on with the Xayaburi hydro-power development….There's no win-win situation for Australia because each country (has its) own national interest in getting... the water and using its flow."  

The Multiverse

As with theories of the multiverse people arguing for and against the dam’s development occupy different but parallel worlds. They seem to be as wilfully unaware of each others existence as any characters in an Ian McDonald novel.

One universe is occupied by the environmental consultants, and non-profits, whose alarm bells are being rung already by the consequences of tributary dams and climate change interactions.

If all proposed dams were built on the mainstream LMB, the losses in fisheries excluding delta and coastal fisheries are expected to amount to US $476 million per year

The other is the world of water engineers and hydropower companies which perhaps hubristically, talk about flood control and the rivers extremes as controllable and desirable rather than inimitable and vital to natural systems.

Hydropower companies say that they can regulate flows easily and quickly in response to peak events such as earthquakes or floods that have seen dams fail in China. But Tarek Ketelsen, himself a water engineer, wrote, “The Mekong flood pulse is responsible for the high levels of biodiversity and productivity of the Mekong system, transporting energy, nutrients and flows downstream and providing for the creation of a diverse range of seasonal habitats such as wetlands, in-channel islands, flooded forests, and highly productive riparian zones.”

Pemlpongsacharoen agreed. Visiting fishing communities outside Chiang Rai, he was shown egg-laden fish that could not reach the mainstream Mekong to spawn, as tributary dams had lowered the dry season flow. The fish collided with sand bars. “The fishermen love floods, he laughed. For them floods are a gift.” Flooded forests around Nakon Phranomh, he said, were also drying out, reducing river nutrient levels. “If you understand ecology, you understand these events are important. But if you understand finance you know they don’t care.”

When asked about the 4.6 earthquake that rocked the Sayaboury area recently, Ketelsen responded by email:  “For dams of this size, theoretically the quickest the gates could be opened is 30-60 seconds, but it would, in fact, take a human operator 2-4 minutes.”

“In ordinary times we calculated that if the higher dams were built, (the World Heritage city of) Luang Prabang could experience rises and falls…in the order of 6-10m if the dams peaked at the predicted daily rates (These dams are called peak demand driven dams and they open and close flood gates in response to peak electricity demand or peak electricity prices-like an energy stock market. The downstream consequences are river bank erosion with infrastructure (bridges landing docks)  and land loss, and in extreme cases, livestock and human fatalities.). All the proposed dams are so called run-of-the-river which means these changes could travel downstream in a matter of 1-2 hours, giving little time for warning. This rise and fall could happen daily in response to demand and fluctuation in price, and can equal or exceed the seasonal rise and fall of the river.”

More than one million fisheries-dependent people could lose their livelihoods in Cambodia alone as a consequence

Despite evidence of major fault lines crossing Laos, EGAT was quick to deny that any of its dams had been affected  by the “quake but it may not be wise to be too sanguine about Sayaboury. After all, in the resort area of Rayong, three damaged reservoirs at a private golf course owned by CHo Karnchang Public Co, the chief contractor of the Sayaboury dam,  broke and flooded three villages in the area. The golf course is located on a hill top near an important temple. A Buddhist nun almost drowned. Very bad karma indeed.

Upstream quakes or floods require a high levels of transboundary and cross company coordination.

Dr Kim Geheb, Mekong Director of the CGIAR Challenge Programme for Water and Food, remarked, "Where each individual dam is owned and operated by a separate company, and where regulations tend to be weak, it is very hard to get cooperation between dams to better serve environmental, emergency and social demands. Hydropower dams are typically built for a single purpose alone: to generate electricity.”

In regard to the obscurer world of politics and nationalistic posturing, it was harder to get people to speak on the record. Some long termers surmised that the pro-China new Lao government could be using the Sayaboury dam as a stalking horse for additional Chinese hydro investment.

Others suggested that being the “battery of Asia”  is far better than being the “hayseed of Asia”, and accords Lao improved regional status. By ensuring energy dependency, Lao could have greater regional leverage and prestige, despite the potential PR disaster of an ecological calamity and public resistance. But Vietnamese sources suggested the relevant minister was given considerable incentives to stamp the paperwork. After all, Laos is ranked 158 on Transparency International’s 180 nation list. A Vietnamese business man who requested anonymity hoped to secure the rights to maintain Laos military vehicles. The Vietnamese have enjoyed a close and paternalistic relationship with Lao since the American War. That might be about to end.

WWF in Vietnam reported that the minister for the environment became quite agitated when they took their concerns to him. “Don’t lecture me,” he is reported to have said. “We are aware of all the ramifications.” He threw open a cupboard, revealing a neat stack of reports. “We are as concerned, possibly more concerned that you are. We have been studying it for years,” the minister said.

Choummaly Sayasone, one of the many stony-faced members of the Lao Politburo and Lao's President, told a high level political meeting in January 2010, “The government has to take measures to prevent the creation of rich and poor poles, like the development gap between urban and rural areas.” Despite his words Lao’s Gini coefficient continues to rise. Destroying Lao’s natural environment  has created a cashed-up urban elite who drive wildly extravagant cars and live in Hollywood gothic-styled houses.

Premrudee Daoroung, also of TERRA, reported that at noisy consultative meetings in Thailand, the people of Pak Moon, who for the past few years have fruitlessly demanded a local dam open its gates to replenish parched fishing grounds, suggested they meet the potentially effected Lao people in order to warn them of its implications. “They and the other Thais were unanimous in their opposition, causing the representatives of the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic to ask the organisers to silence the them. The Thai organisers reminded the Lao officials that this was a consultation as demanded by MRC guidelines, and that in Thailand people can protest. The Lao looked nervous and disappeared as soon as they could,” she laughed.

 “Thailand built a dam which supplies only enough energy to supply one department store. To build it, 6,000 people had to give up their land. The Thai people know this and are fighting back,” Daoroung concluded.

Several years ago, Newsweek coined the phrase “A kinder gentler dam”  to describe the hotly contested Nam Theun 2 dam in Lao’s province of Khammouane, implying that dams can be clean and green and suitable for children. And there is no doubt that some are. The Thakho dam in Southern Laos is a good example.

But to the power engineers, the growth at any cost bankers,  and the post socialist government of Laos, the Mekong and its tributaries represent a source of income and power in both senses of the word. Big dams are back, even the World Bank supports them using the “kinder gentler” mantra. While growth is the mantra, neighbouring countries’ needs for energy are escalating. As energy demand grows, so perhaps does Laos regional status and bargaining power, but so do the risks to one of the world most iconic rivers and the people who depend on it.



Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.