Mekong Utility Watch

Dammed if you do…

(July 2, 2010) Dams from both upstream and downstream are threatening the livelihoods of citizens on the Mekong River, writes Minh Hung in the Thanh Nien News.

Mekong River communities are facing a double threat: the perils of upstream dams in China and possibility of twelve new downstream.

Work on 12 downstream dams planned on the Mekong River should be deferred until their social and environmental impacts are addressed at length, delegations from member nations of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) agreed at a two day workshop held in Ho Chi Minh City.

The workshop, which wrapped up on June 29, signaled the end of a project assessment process that began in May of 2009.

“We were looking to gather the environmental perspectives of the member countries,” Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC said in a phone interview. “There certainly was an agreement that much more discussion and work needs to be done before any construction can begin.”

Bird added that the MRC will release its final report on the proposed dam projects in August. Following the release, the MRC will begin presenting its findings to various governmental bodies.

Some workgroups expressed concern over the future of the river’s ecosystem as well as the communities that rely on it for survival.

The stakes are very high, they said.

The MRC has reported that more than 60 million people in the lower Mekong basin depend on the river system for food, transportation and their economic livelihoods.

The estimated commercial value of the freshwater fisheries in the basin exceeds US$2 billion per year, making it the world’s most valuable inland fishery. Eighty percent of the animal protein for Mekong inhabitants comes from the river. Up to 40 percent of fish harvested are migratory species.

Slow and steady

The Vietnamese delegation recommended the deferment of all mainstream hydropower dam projects – none of which are proposed to be built in Vietnam.

“Proceeding with rapid development of all 12 dams would greatly impact [Vietnam’s] Mekong Delta,” the Vietnamese delegation said, urging other nations to consider alternative energy sources.

The Thai working group also advised the stoppage of all Mekong mainstream dam projects, fearing damages to the livelihood of riparian stakeholders.

Senator Surajit Chirawate, who serves as Chairman of the Thai Senate Sub-committee on Water Resources, argued that any mainstream damming would change the river’s ecology irrevocably.

“We understand the need for electricity in other countries – especially in Laos and Cambodia,” Chirawate told Thanh Nien Weekly. “But we also think trying to generate power from mainstream dams is very risky.”

“There are other options,” Chirawate said. “[Damming the Mekong’s mainstream] could severely impact the food security of the people who live along the river.”

The Cambodian working group offered commentary on each of the four proposed options: abandoning the project, deferring construction, proceeding with caution and accelerating construction. Cambodian representatives did not exhibit a clear predilection for any option.

The Laotian team called for further study to minimize potential environmental impacts and ecological variables.

Up the river…

The impacts of China’s four major hydroelectric dams have dismayed downstream nations.

In 1996, China and Myanmar signed on to be “dialogue partners.” This April, China pledged further cooperation with the MRC to mitigate droughts.

However, resentment and suspicion continues to linger.

“China considers itself a big country that doesn’t have to listen to the opinions of the people downstream,” Thai Senator Prasarn Marukpitak told Thanh Nien Weekly. “[China]‘s four upriver dams have altered the water levels causing the riverbank erosion and shifts in the waterway.”

Marukpitak said that MRC member countries currently “have to rely on the management of the Chinese.”

However MRC’s Bird said that China has demonstrated a legitimate desire to operate its existing dams in a mutually beneficial manner. “China has been very cooperative in this assessment process,” he stressed.

Getting there

“The biggest question is the impact these dams will have on fisheries and, their consequential impact on livelihoods,” said Bird.

He noted that mitigation efforts for fisheries were being explored. Fish ways, if properly constructed could allow migratory species to pass through a mainstream hydroelectric dam, he said.

“We haven’t had a consensus yet, but we’re starting to get a gathering of opinions around some two or three different directions,” Bird said. “I think that’s encouraging for future discussion on the issue.”

Minh Hung,
Thanh Nien News, July 2, 2010

Read the original story here. [PDFver here]

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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