Reshaping the Mekong

Bangkok Post 13 August 2010

Medium- and long-term plan with major focus on dams acknowledges potential impact on environment and food security, but critics question its basic assumptions about 'development'.

Having been left untamed for decades, the Mekong basin in recent years has been witnessing a rapid transformation. First comes a cascade of eight dams planned on the Upper Mekong by China. And if approved by ministers of the riparian countries at the end of this year, more developments are expected.

More dams on the Mekong will mean more money for Laos in particular and cheaper power for many, but at what cost to the environment, the fishery and livelihoods?

For the past few years, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has been developing a new basin development strategy in its role as the riparian countries' co-ordinating and advisory body. The final draft is expected to be tabled for approval at the council's next meeting.

For the first time, the draft strategy outlines development scenarios and also presents pros and cons. The strategy, nonetheless, has been criticised by some social experts who say it may not have answered well enough the fundamental needs of the people who form the majority of the Mekong basin population - food and livelihood security.

"The strategy tried to condense information, and it needs decoding," said Professor Phillip Hirsch, of the University of Sydney's Human Geography department, at the third forum on the Mekong Basin Development Plan in Vientiane.

The plan presents development scenarios for the next five years and the next 20 years. Naturally, the scenarios involve water-based activities, but mainly centre on hydropower development, an approach that has some critics.

The scenario for the next five years foresees at least eight hydropower dams built on the river in China, with 26 more on tributaries as alternatives.

The 20-year scenario foresees the latter plus various choices of either 11 more dams on the Mekong itself, plus 30 more on tributaries, or without all these.

The dams proposed in the five-year scenario would provide about 6,500 megawatts of new electricity capacity, worth about US$11.4 billion. Over 20 years, new capacity would increase to about 27,500 MW, worth $32.8 billion.

Such developments would alter the river flow and increase fluctuations in water levels, with both benefits and losses to the ecosystem. The upsides include a reduction of salt intrusion in the Mekong Delta, and the downsides include the possible extinction of key species including the Giant Catfish.

Significantly, about one million people risk of losing their livelihoods.

In short, Laos would gain the most, mainly from hydropower revenue, but others including Thailand would benefit both as producers and consumers of electricity. However, Cambodia would benefit less than other countries due to adverse impacts on fish stocks.

The 20-year scenarios envisaging 11 mainstream dams would generate the highest economic benefits, but at the same time create the most severe negative impacts on the fishery, which could threaten the livelihoods of at least 3.5 million people, especially in Cambodia.

Dr Hirsch said the strategy aims to give guidance for development options, but he challenged the basic assumptions of what "development" means and for whom. He said that while the strategy tried to balance socio-economic impacts with the environment, the critical question is who should discuss and decide the options.

He described the strategy as "hydrologically driven" despite its claims to be based on the principle of integrated water resources management, which should also take land and other resources into account.

The strategy also applies the concept of net present value to evaluate benefits of the development options, which needs further clarification. The loss of fisheries and some flagship species, he said, would compromise the ecosystem.

Overall, said Dr Hirsch, the tone is complacent, given the fact that dams are at the centre of what is at stake.

"Development space needs to reconsider the space for food and livelihood security rather than the crude value of hydropower development," he said. "We have dams. We should study them before we go further."

The commission, he said, should widen the inclusion of different stakeholders to help consider the strategy.

Thanapon Piman, a senior modelling specialist who presented the assessment, said the strategy was hydrologically driven based on principles of flow regulation in the MRC agreement the riparian countries made in 1995.

He said at least the new strategy has provided a platform and procedures for stakeholders to take part in developing the basin together.

Once work begins to progress, he said, the challenges such as food security could attract more priority than the hydro-based development proposition for new assessment and planning.

"If we don't have a framework to start our work together, we may not move on to other stages," said Dr Thanapon. "... and if we don't have a framework, they will build a dam anyway, and once one dam can be built, others will follow, without much planning."

Prasarn Marukpitak, a Thai senator working on social security development, said the problem with the strategy is that it starts with a question regarding hydropower development. Once the parties involved start their talks like this, they are trapped mentally and cannot think of other development options.

So far, he said, participation has not been complete, with China still keeping its distance from other parties. He said China should be more active in participating with other riparian countries.

"No matter how wonderful the strategy would be, without China, the Mekong basin's challenges will not be overcome," said Mr Prasarn.

More information and maps of planned hydropower developments are available on the Mekong River Commission website:

China keeps its distance

VIENTIANE China took little active part beyond listening to stakeholders discuss basin development strategy during the recent Mekong forum in Vientiane.

A Chinese delegate said his country had nothing to do directly with the strategy because it was for Lower Mekong development. He said that what China could do is share its expertise in hydropower development. The massive Three Gorges dam, for instance, has provided China with many lessons in developing hydroelectricity.

"We can share this with [other Mekong countries]," said the delegate. "We share expertise with the MRC. We have also invited the MRC to visit out Lancang dams."

The delegate said China would do more to accommodate the lower Mekong countries, but declined to say whether or not China was interested in investing in hydropower development downstream. "At this stage, we are here to help you."

Zhou Shichun, with the secretariat of the Ecosystem Study Commission for International Rivers, said the Mekong strategy was very important for sustainable development in the region, as it has summarised views and concerns from different stakeholders.

"It creates a balance among different sectors. That is important," said Mr Zhao.