Mekong Utility Watch

Overview of regional plans

Grainne Ryder
World Rivers Review
December 1, 1994

The 4200-kilometer Mekong is the tenth largest river in the world, carrying 475,000 million cubic meters of water to the sea annually. The river flows from the Tibetan Himalayas southward through China and passes north of Burma, its watershed encompassing nearly all of Laos, northeast Thailand, most of Cambodia, and the delta of south Vietnam.

Fed by melting snow in Tibet and two monsoons, the most spectacular feature of the Mekong is its annual flooding, which supports one of the most biologically diverse river systems in the world, surpassed only by the Amazon and possibly the Nile. In the heart of Cambodia, where the river is joined by the Tonle Sap or Great Lake River, it rises from one or two meters above sea level in May to eight or ten meters above sea level in August.

Mekong River

The flow of the Tonle Sap River reverses during the flood, spreading the Great Lake over 10,000 square kilometers, three times its size during the dry season. The flooded forests and plain provide habitat for a multitude of fish searching for food and spawning grounds. Teeming with aquatic life and decomposing organic matter, the Great Lake has been described as “a veritable vegetable and animal broth.”

By October, water levels in the Mekong drop, and the major tributaries, including the Tonle Sap, begin to flow back to the Mekong as the Great Lake recedes. Some fish move with the floodwaters back into the rivers and mainstream, others move back to the estuary.

Flooding Forest

The fish of the flooded forests, (called “white fish”), including species such as carp, herring and threadfin, live in the open waters and migrate long distances to spawn in more sheltered inland spots. The “black fish” group, which includes catfish, murrels and snakehead species, stays in the shallow, muddy waters, some of them so well adapted that they have breathing organs and are able to survive in small mudholes through the dry season.


Most of the 8 million Cambodians fish year round. In the Great Lake and surrounding areas, the commercial harvest is permitted only in October and February. Should plans to dam and divert the Mekong and its tributaries be realized, the fisheries will be severely affected. Normal migration paths will be blocked, resulting in a steep decline in the harvest of fish available to local fishermen.

Visions of Modern Agriculture

Perhaps the single most influential man in the development of the early Mekong plans was Raymond Wheeler, a retired General of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Like most water engineers, Wheeler thought that a major obstacle to economic development in the Mekong River Basin was annual flooding. He believed that the rivers should be dammed, and with them the flood dependent agriculture replaced with modern irrigated cash crops.

It was on Wheeler’s recommendations for damming the Mekong that the United Nations set up the Mekong Committee in 1957 to “promote, coordinate, supervise and control the planning and investigation of water resources development projects in the Lower Mekong Basin.”

American engineers designed seven dams for the Mekong mainstream with a total capacity of 23,300 MW and reservoirs capable of storing more than one-third of the river’s annual flow. The scale of the projects was impressive: the first dam in the cascade, the High Pa Mong, would have required the resettlement of 250,000 people, flooded 3,700 square kilometers of land and cost US $10 billion. Though the Mekong Committee spent at least $70 million on Pa Mong, the project never got past the preliminary planning stages.

By the 1960s, however, several “multipurpose” dams were completed on Mekong tributaries in Northeast Thailand, flooding thousands of square kilometers of forest land and displacing thousands of villages. In 1968, the 150 MW Nam Ngum Dam was completed in Laos, making it the country’s largest hydro project. Completed with World Bank financing, Nam Ngum generated power for export to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), an arrangement which would prove popular among dam building proponents.

Throughout the 1970s, the war in Indochina stymied all progress for Mekong planners. Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam dropped out of the Mekong Committee and UN funding for the Committee’s work dried up. It was not until 1978 that an interim committee was established. Cambodia, which was sealed off from the world by the Khmer Rouge, was not a member.

Writes the Mekong Secretariat in retrospect, “The Committee by force of circumstance was obliged to concentrate only on national-level and tributary development and even that in only some of the riparian states. The much more important and ambitious mainstream development projects had to be postponed to when all four countries could again sit at the same table.”

Investing in Peak Power

By the late 1980s, when peace in Cambodia and a lifting of the U.S.-led embargo on aid and investment in Indochina appeared on the horizon, Western countries began renewing their support for the Mekong Committee. By this time the Mekong Secretariat had identified more than 200 possible dam sites, most of them on tributaries flowing from the highlands of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

Between 1986 and 1990, Australia, the Netherlands, and Sweden, as top donors to the Committee, were effectively running it as a conduit for aid to consultants and companies from their own countries gearing up for work in a peaceful Indochina. The planners threw out the original vision of multipurpose dams for hydropower and irrigation schemes (primarily because multi-purpose dams had proven uneconomic), in favor of Mekong dams that would serve peak demand for power in rapidly-industrializing Thailand.

Approaches differed, too, for the manner in which projects should be owned and financed. Already deeply in debt, governments of the region were attracted to the recommendations of Swedpower, the Swedish dam consultants, that the planned dams be built on a build-operate-transfer (BOT) basis. The arrangement called for foreign contractors or groups of investors to capitalize, build, and operate projects for twenty or thirty years until accruing a predetermined profit, after which the government would take over.

Hampered by domestic opposition to dams, Thailand had, since the 1980s, been looking beyond its borders, to the unharnessed rivers of Laos for potential dam sites. When Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan announced his new “battlefield to marketplace” policy in 1989, which emphasized a new era of cordial relations and trade and investment in Indochina, joint development of hydropower in Laos was top on the agenda.

With an estimated 18,000 MW worth of hydropower potential on the Mekong and its tributaries waiting to be tapped within their borders, Laos government leaders looked for economic deliverance after years of isolation and economic stagnation.

Meanwhile, driven more by international dam building interests than by homegrown political momentum, plans for dams on the Mekong mainstream quietly continued at the Mekong Secretariat. Based on EGAT’s forecasted tripling of energy demand in Thailand by the year 2005, Canadian dam building consultants, Acres International, recommended a scaled-down, Low Pa Mong Dam which would require the resettlement of 60,000 people (compared to the original plans that called for resettlement of 250,000 people).

Despite its efforts, Acres International made little progress, faced with early objections from Cambodian officials. “They shouldn’t continue with these mainstream plans [Pa Mong] without Cambodia [on the Committee],” said Mr. Sin Niny, Vice Director of the Ministry of Agriculture and Director of Cambodia’s national Mekong committee.

The Cambodians weren’t the only ones unhappy with the plan. The criticisms raised by Laotian government officials would signal a conflict that would plague progress on dams planned for the border-forming river. The study, they said, lacked attention to environmental concerns, and emphasized only the benefits to Thailand.

Even within the Mekong Secretariat, the Pa Mong Dam plans did not receive unanimous support. The chief of the environmental unit, Erik Skoglund of Sweden, resigned. Speaking to the Far Eastern Economic Review just before leaving Thailand, he said, “The resettlement business is a major problem. No donor in the world will allocate funds for Pa Mong with this problem.”

Mekong Committee Disintegrates

Despite the strengthening of political and diplomatic relations between the Mekong countries, the Mekong Committee began to fall apart in 1991. With the reinstatement of Cambodia to the Mekong Committee under discussion, the Thai national committee recognized that the Committee would return to its original rules under which it operated when all four nations had participated. Chief among these was that downstream countries would again have the power to veto projects such as Kong-Chi-Mun (see box) which affect the mainstream. In a manoeuvre to avoid the situation, the Thai Foreign Affairs Ministry threatened to pull out of the Committee.

The conference scheduled for early 1992 at which Cambodia was to be reinstated was abruptly cancelled and the controversial UN-appointed Committee Chief, Chuck Lankester, resigned following Thai accusations that he had sided with the downstream countries in the dispute.

Acrimonious bickering between the members of the newly-defunct Mekong Committee continued. The Thai government defended its actions, claiming they were a response to “interference” with its sovereign right to use its share of the Mekong. Thai authorities called for a completely new Mekong Committee framework which, they argued, would respect Thai sovereignty and better reflect new “economic and political realities” in the region. Vietnam promptly accused Thailand of imposing conditions for the return of Cambodia to the Committee, and insisted that Cambodia be allowed to rejoin before revamping the rules.

For two years Thailand and Vietnam feuded, stopped only by UN intervention. After several rounds of closed-door negotiations sponsored by the UN, the four Mekong countries agreed to work out a new framework of cooperation which would leave room for the future participation of the upper Mekong states, Burma and China (see story p. ), and effectively diminish the relative power of the downstream countries.

Popular Support Erodes

Outside the meeting rooms filled with national and international officials, public support for dam projects, if there ever was much, was eroding. In Thailand, where opponents could raise their voices more safely than elsewhere in the region, prolonged protests against the Pak Mun Dam made it an issue of national importance. Sited on the largest Mekong tributary in Thailand, the Pak Mun Dam was first studied by American engineers and completed in 1993 with financing from the World Bank. The dam has blocked fish migrations from the Mekong and destroyed fishing grounds in the river, prompting thousands of people to demand compensation for the loss of their Mun fisheries-dependent livelihoods.

Looking to Pak Mun, community leaders around Thailand who could be affected by further dam construction were already considering the question of fair compensation, or opposing plans outright. As a result, EGAT dropped several dam projects from its plans, including Kaeng Krung, and Mae Ngao.

To date the Mekong debate has centered mainly in Thailand where three decades of rapacious logging, dam building, and rapid industrialization has given rise to a popular environmental movement. This broad based movement is challenging the status quo of state monopolization and appropriation of forest and water resources.

According to the Bangkok-based Project for Ecological Recovery (PER), the environmental legacy of big dams is a clear warning that the price of massive hydroelectric expansion elsewhere in the region will be, for the majority of people, an intolerable burden.

Thai environmentalists also criticize plans to import water and power as a shortsighted attempt by Thai politicians and bureaucrats to avoid tackling the forest and water crisis at home – in part caused by 30 years of big dams and mismanagement.

Dr. Chirapol Sintunawa of Mahidol University in Bangkok argues that much of the electricity from planned dams could be provided more cheaply and quickly by energy efficiency measures. In the case of the Pak Man Dam, for example, studies show that energy efficiency could have provided an equivalent amount of electricity for one-fourth the cost.

The public outcry over Pak Man, and the sustained international criticism of other World Bank projects has the institution ,”moving very cautiously” on potential financing for other Mekong dams, according to Arnaud Guinard, the Bank’s Chief of Missions for Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Burma. Currently the Bank is the largest multilateral financier of power projects in Asia, but that may change, at least where dams are concerned. “We don’t want another Pak Man on the front page every morning,” says Guinard.

Public debate, particularly in Laos and Vietnam, has been slow to generate due to political restrictions and lack of local press freedom. The relative inaccessibility of information about new dams and the secretive nature of the dam building industry within the region has left people uniformed and unprepared.

Though some public skepticism has started to surface, Thai authorities remain committed to expanding energy supply, preferably in a way that will shift social and environmental costs onto neighboring governments and isolated communities. Reporting on EGAT this year, Business Asia writes, “Beset with environmental opposition to power development plans and an inability to promote itself effectively, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand was recently forced to drop six plants from its long term energy development plan. To fill the gap, the government will now rely on private-sector developers in Thailand and neighboring countries.”

While the Mekong countries themselves have yet to finalize terms of regional cooperation, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) is forging ahead with preparation of rules for international joint ventures in Mekong hydrodams. Regional forums hosted by the ADB in 1994 were little more than chances to test the popularity of a list of projects prepared by dam consultants.

The regional emphasis has allowed the ADB to promote its agenda while avoiding the question of political legitimacy of governments within each Mekong country and their capacity to handle large-scale, capital intensive projects. And with the Mekong Committee in a state of collapse, the ADB has taken center stage to coordinate private sector participation in regional energy and infrastructure development.

According to Anil Malhotra, energy advisor to the World Bank, power sector development is the “largest most important investment opportunity” for the private sector. While the private sector remains cautious, with only a few dam projects in Laos progressing beyond the stage of formal agreements, the dam-building industry is doing its best to encourage the ADB approach. Drawing on earlier Mekong Committee Secretariat studies, Nordic dam building consultants, Norconsult, completed a list of priority projects for the ADB in 1994, describing damming the Mekong as “one of the greatest resource development challenges in the region.”

Even if Mekong countries reach individual agreements on rules of investment in hydro projects, (be it public, private, or the more likely combination of the two), the potential for conflict in the region over water use remains real. Academics such as Dr. Vo Tong Xuan, Vice Rector of Vietnam’s Can Tho University believe that building big dams and reservoirs upstream will exacerbate conflicts and competition for water supply, particularly in low-water years.

In 1990, Xuan flew over the Mekong where it borders northeast Thailand and Laos in August, two months into the rainy season when it normally should have been swollen. “. . . I saw with my own eyes that the Mekong was so low you could walk over to the other side. Maybe fields in Thailand could be irrigated from the Pa Mong reservoir, but I don’t think there will be enough water for the delta,” he said.

“The question we should pose is how to use the Mekong water wisely, how to increase the farmer’s income while keeping the delta green. We must explain to dogmatic people that large water works are not the answer to every problem.”


Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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