Mekong at the crossroads

China Dialogue 18 April 2011

By R Edward Grumbine and Xu Jianchu

Commotion is growing over a planned dam on the Mekong River. As the deadline for a decision on the project approaches, R Edward Grumbine and Xu Jianchu urge governments to support a construction freeze.


Editor’s note: This week, a crucial decision will be made over the fate of the Mekong River in south-east Asia. On April 22, the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will decide whether or not to build the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream, the Xayaburi Dam. Critics argue that such a dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients for downstream farming and, by slowing the river flow, allow saltwater to creep into the Mekong River Delta. Opponents also say that the project would set a precedent and allow the construction of 10 more dams on the lower Mekong.


Massive public opposition has already been expressed throughout the region. Last month, 263 NGOs from 51 countries sent letters to the governments of Laos and Thailand urging that the project be shelved. A Strategic Environmental Assessment report published in October 2010 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) recommended that decision-making on these dams be deferred for 10 years. Despite this clear recommendation, the decision-making process continues to move forward.

Into the twenty-first century, the Mekong River has remained one of the world’s last great rivers with only a few dams across its mainstream. While China has for some time been constructing a series of eight large dams on the upper Mekong, no dams span the mainstream channel in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) that flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But this may change very soon.

In September 2010, the Lao Peoples Democratic Republic petitioned the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to begin the formal process of approving Xayaburi dam, the first of 11 proposed projects across the channel of the lower Mekong. While such a hydropower cascade would provide substantial economic benefits, it would almost certainly have great negative impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem services in the LMB. And the dams would undercut the livelihood and food security of millions of people.

Using a regional decision-making process that was approved in 1995 but never used until today, the MRC countries (Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia) have until late April [this week] to evaluate Laos’ proposal and allow the project to go forward or not. And even if the MRC countries recommend against the project, Laos, as a sovereign state, may choose to continue building the dam. Whatever the countries decide will either promote high-impact hydropower development, or postpone such development until further studies can contribute to a more integrated, trans-boundary river basin management.

Three salient features lend Laos’ petition great importance to the future of the Mekong. First, river basin planning historically throughout this region has never integrated existing ecosystem and livelihood vulnerabilities with projections of regional natural resources development. For years, the MRC has struggled to carry out comprehensive environmental and social assessments. Reliable data on LMB natural resources can be difficult to obtain due to lack of collection and poor government transparency. Factoring in potential climate change impacts has also proved difficult. The MRC only hired a climate change staff member in late 2008.

Though providing integrated planning has not been easy, much is already known about the Mekong. The river flows through an area of Asia that has high poverty rates along with low levels of human development. Across the four LMB countries: one in five people earn less than US$1.25 a day; some 21% of LMB residents do not have access to clean water; over 30% do not use closed sanitation systems. Projected impacts of climate change by 2050 range from low (eg water availability) to moderate (eg increasing temperatures) to potentially high (eg decreasing food production and sea-level rise in the Mekong Delta). Two things are clear in the LMB: there exists a great need to provide for poor people and future environmental risks will be challenging.

The second factor that bears on Laos’ petition shows that the quality of river basin planning is improving —on the heels of Laos’ petition, the MRC released the first-ever Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of the cumulative environmental and social impacts of all proposed mainstream dams. This document portrays the full scope of hydropower development in the LMB. If built, the 11 dams would generate enough power to account for 8% of projected regional demand to 2025. Income from hydropower generation could total US$3.7 billion (24.2 billion yuan) a year. Dam operators and investors, however, would garner most of this income during the first 25 years of dam operations. Nevertheless, Laos and Cambodia could stand to gain annual income equivalent to about 18% and 4% of their 2009 GDP respectively.

Environmental costs, however, would be very high. The SEA projects that the dams would create direct costs in reduced fisheries, inundation of river bank farms and gardens, and loss of nutrients for floodplain agriculture equivalent to US$500 million (3.3 billion yuan) a year. Ecological impacts would be severe. The Mekong ecosystem, which experiences seasonal “flood pulses” during the monsoon, harbors the second highest fish species diversity in the world. But the dams would turn over half of the length of the main river channel into reservoirs with slow-moving, slack water conditions. Despite the migratory nature of many Mekong fishes, only three of the proposed 11 dams incorporate fish ladders and none of these designs are adequate for local species. Fifty percent to 75% of total river sediments would be trapped behind the dams and prevented from moving downstream to nourish river primary productivity and floodplain agriculture.

These ecosystem impacts relate directly to loss of human livelihoods in the Mekong, for the river is the most productive inland fishery in the world. The populations of Cambodia and Laos would stand to lose up to 30% of their annual protein intake since their diets are heavily fish-dependent. The SEA projects some 2.1 million people would suffer direct and indirect losses to their livelihoods. Finding that the immensity of these risks were “beyond the current capacity of the LMB region and its governments to address”, the SEA team recommended deferring all mainstream dam building for at least 10 years.

This sobering assessment of current governmental capacities to manage the Mekong highlights the third factor at play over Laos’ petition to build the initial mainstream dam. While other reports agree with the SEA about poor governmental capacity, international rivers, by definition, require effective trans-boundary cooperation. In the past, much planning (and funding) for dam construction came from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and Asian Development Bank. But now these agencies, with their commitment to at least some minimal level of environmental and social assessment, are being replaced by private capitalists and state-owned banks. These new actors are focused on profits; they do not automatically abide by the recommendations of the World Commission on Dams or other corporate social responsibility guidelines. Laos’ Xayaburi dam, for example, would be constructed using capital from Thai Banks with 90% of the electricity bound for Thailand.

There are efforts now underway in the Mekong to implement SEA recommendations. But such planning will go nowhere without governments’ support for a dam building moratorium. If hydropower development was postponed, four steps could help to lay the foundation for LMB planning that could also serve as a model for efforts in other Asian river basins. The first step would recognise the political sensitivities involved in nurturing a shift from sovereign state-focused views of development to a trans-boundary approach. Strengthening the role of the MRC to foster regional dialogue would help to build trust that is essential to negotiate resource use in a world of increasing scarcity, rising uncertainty, and declining resiliency.

Another step would be to focus institution building on two arenas: constructing a trans-boundary knowledge network and a parallel trans-boundary government network. Both would emphasise sharing benefits through the balanced provision of water and power, regional trade, and livelihood and food security. Such networks are being pioneered by the Mekong Program on Water Environment and Resilience (M-POWER). A critical piece missing in the Mekong is neutral evaluation of alternatives to hydropower-based energy. Maybe dams are not the best answer in the Mekong, but a region-wide assessment of future power needs that weighs a range of alternatives to dams has never been done. Such assessments cannot, of course, be separated from building trans-boundary government networks for long term Mekong management. China and Myanmar have never joined the MRC.

A third essential step would encourage public participation and financial benefits for local peoples. This will continue to be tough work in the Mekong where government authority remains top-down and people most impacted by dams are still not part of decision making processes. But there are water planning frameworks such as the International Union for Conservation of Nature Negotiate process that include people from the beginning that could be applied in the Mekong.

Lastly, multilateral support to foster new knowledge and governmental networks in the Mekong remains essential. Even the wealthiest countries (Thailand, Vietnam and China) do not have the resources to address current environmental vulnerabilities and future risks. A full economic accounting of these costs has never been completed in the Mekong, but such a report would be useful to multilateral funding agencies as they seek to target monies more efficiently. Even private investors would benefit from greater understanding of the factors that bear on their exposure to long term environmental and social risks. One way to foster this would be to link government approval of dams to a standardised planning template such as the new Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol.

River basin management in the Mekong is at a crossroads. Today, all the pieces are falling into place to create an innovative management model that could be useful across Asia. After all, trans-boundary environmental and social vulnerabilities on the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna and Indus River are broadly similar.

But time is running short in the Mekong and not just because of the Laos proposal. Upstream, China’s dams are only partially built, but will increasingly influence dry season flows, sediment capture and overall river management. Political complexity is also increasing; what if Laos persists in building Xayaburi dam even if its MRC partners vote the project down? And in 2009, the US State Department announced funding for a Lower Mekong Initiative to build capacity for a range of environmental, education and health projects and to re-establish a political presence in the region.

Like historical river flows, however, past political relationships may not be the most useful guide to future environmental decision making in the Mekong. In an era of rising resource demands, reduced environmental resiliencies and ongoing climate-change impacts, international cooperation across the entire river basin is in the best interest of all.

Dr R Edward Grumbine is on a two year Chinese Academy of Sciences fellowship at the Key Laboratory of Biodiversity and Biogeography, Kunming Institute of Botany, Yunnan, China, where he is working on conservation and environmental security issues. Dr Xu Jianchu heads the China- East Asia node of the World Agroforestry Centre, Kunming Institute of Botany. He focuses on river basin biodiversity, agroforestry and local livelihoods throughout the region.

This article was adapted from Grumbine and Xu, “Mekong Hydropower Development”. Science, 332, 2011:178-179.