It's all about dams, hydro power and money

Bangkok Post 24 August 2010  

By Piyaporn Wongrung

Before the new development strategy for the Mekong basin is approved at the end of this year, some serious considerations should be taken into account.

During the last few years, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) – the Mekong riparian countries' coordinating and advisory body – has been developing a new basin development strategy to help guide the way forward. It is the first time that a strategy has tried to balance development by assessing social, environmental and economic impacts all together.

As a result of the years-long work, the study teams have come up with four key development scenarios which can help portray the changes of the basin, which is home to more than 60 million people.

According to some MRC officials, the development of the scenarios is based on the regulation of flows framed in the 1995 agreement among the riparian countries, which aims at helping to regulate their use of water in the Mekong River. The officials said they tried to look into concerned sectors which may influence the flow of the river ranging from irrigation to navigation. But at the end of the day, when it is down to the formation of the scenarios, what has been seen dominating these scenarios is all about hydropower development.

In all scenarios, construction of dams has become the key proposition for assessments which follow. The baseline scenario itself already presents existing dams on the Upper Mekong built by China as what to start with. The scenario for the next five years foresees eight dams on the Upper Mekong, with 25 or 26 more on the river's tributaries downstream included as an option. And in the next 20 years, the basin will likely foresee 11 more dams on the mainstream, plus several more on tributaries.

From the initial settings of dam constructions, social, environmental and economic impacts have been assessed, and this process has yielded different results.

With these foreseeable dams, in the next five years the basin would see about 6,500 MW of new electricity capacity installed downstream, or double the current capacity. This is estimated to be worth about US$11.4 billion.

But during the same period of time, what will soon be seen is the change in the river's flow and the increase in water level fluctuations. These have been interpreted as contributing both to benefits and losses to the ecosystem in various ways, ranging from reduction of salt intrusion at the Mekong Delta, to the possible extinction of key species, including the Giant Catfish.

What is also likely is that at least nearly one million people are at risk of losing their livelihoods, not to mention the 3.5 million more suffering the same fate if more dams are constructed over the next 20 years.

The assessments have apparently come up with results which are responsive to the key proposition. The only problem is whether this is the path of development that people in the region wish to take.

Has a wrong question been asked in the first place in order to develop the path of development for the region?

In the view of some Mekong experts, including that of Professor Philip Hirsch, director of the Australian Mekong Resource Centre, University of Sydney, the current draft strategy needs to be decoded.

He did just that and what he has found is that food and livelihood security – whichh is part of the UN Millennium Development Goals – has been placed as secondary to monetary returns from the scenario developments. This is not to mention that the monetary returns themselves are not yet perfectly estimated, as some information input is still vague and questionable.

The strategy aims to give guidance for development options, but what we mean by development and for whom, asks Dr Hirsch, who was invited to comment on the draft strategy during the Third Regional Stakeholders Forum on the Mekong Basin Development Plan, which was held in Vientiane recently.

In his view, development space where the acceptable level of development is allowed as a result of the assessments should be reconsidered in terms of enhancing food and livelihood security for the poor in the basin. The work should go more slowly, taking into account the experience of dams built in the past and learning from those before the basin moves forward. And more importantly, more participation from a broader range of stakeholders is needed.

So far, it is not certain to what extent the MRC has taken heed of the views of participants at the forum. But what was suggested at the first MRC summit in Thailand's Hua Hin by the prime ministers of the riparian countries, poses a sense of certainty as to where to go for the basin. The MRC claims it has underlined the adoption and implementation of the strategy as the first priority.

China, which keeps itself at a distance despite having a large share in the river, has also demonstrated its interest in working more along dam developments downstream. As interviewed by the Bangkok Post during the forum, Beijing's representative said China was willing to share expertise with the countries downstream, while adding that the strategy has nothing to do with China as it is for lower Mekong development.

Before the strategy reaches the time for approval, it should be made clear that this strategy is principally about the development of hydropower. And whether this should become the path of "progress" to be undertaken by the people in the basin. It is the people themselves who should be allowed to have a voice, in regard to what kind of development they want.