By Milton Osborne 25 October 2010
A thorough environmental assessment has called into question plans for the construction of dams on the Mekong River, plans which are backed by the Lao and Cambodian governments.
On 15 October the Mekong River Commission (MRC) released the Final Report on the Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of planned hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream. The report, prepared by ICEM Australia (International Centre for Environmental Management), recommends that plans to build dams on the Mekong mainstream after the river flows out of China should be deferred. This is in direct opposition to the commercial interests that wish to build the dams and to the announced support for such dams from the governments of Laos and Cambodia.
It also calls into question the reported remarks over the last several months of the MRC's chief executive officer, who on several occasions has spoken as if the construction of some dams on the river was certain.
The SEA is a substantial document which examines the likely impact of the eleven dams and one water diversion project, all designed to generate hydroelectricity. Until now, no dams have existed on the Mekong's mainstream after the river flows out of China. (The background to this issue is discussed in detail in my Lowy Paper published in November 2009, 'The Mekong: River Under Threat').
With widespread opposition to the dams from environmental NGOs, the report comes at a time when the Lao Government has recently notified the MRC, in accordance with the Mekong River Agreement of 1995, of its intention to approve construction of a dam at Xayaburi and when advocates for the dams have placed great emphasis on the claimed economic benefits from the proposed dams. These claimed benefits form an important part of a draft Basin Development Plan, released in July 2010, which suggested that, as a first step, approval should be given for the construction of six mainstream dams on the Mekong above the Lao capital of Vientiane.
The SEA's main recommendation, which is sure to result in opposition from advocates for the dams, is that '(d)ecisions on mainstream dams should be deferred for a period of ten years with reviews every three years to ensure that essential deferment-period activities are being conducted effectively.' And as a concluding point, the SEA states, 'The Mekong mainstream should never be used as a test case for proving and improving full dam hydropower technologies.'
The SEA provides a wealth of evidence against going ahead with the dams. It acknowledges that there is potential for electricity production, but it makes clear that the social impact of the dams would be very great indeed. To take fisheries alone, the SEA concludes that '(l)oss of inland fish production would have major implications for food security given the dependency of the LMB [Lower Mekong Basin] region on fish as a source of protein'. And it states that 'replacing capture fish production by aquaculture production is not realistic'. The SEA states unequivocally that '(f)ish passes are not a realistic mitigation option for Mekong mainstream dams.'
The importance of this conclusion is underlined by the fact, as I have found in interviews in the region both this year and last, that even officials who have had a long association with the Mekong and its governance have continued to suggest that mitigation measures could work if dams were built. This is despite a mass of evidence to the contrary.
While the estimate made by the SEA of the number of people who would be directly affected by the construction of all the projected dams, as the result of necessary relocation, are of the order of 107,000, once account is taken of indirect effects of those living within a 15km corridor of the river, the numbers jump to no fewer than 29.6 million for Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, and 14 million in Vietnam. These figures should be read against the total population of the Lower Mekong Basin being approximately 60 million.
What happens now? The SEA does not represent an MRC point of view, and it remains to be seen what the final version of the Basin Development Plan will say. Under the terms of the Mekong River Agreement, the MRC cannot tell Vientiane or Phnom Penh what to do, and what happens in relation to the Mekong ultimately rests with the governments of the countries through which the river flows. Will the Lao and Cambodian governments ignore the SEA? The fear must be that one or both will do so, and in doing so cause irreparable harm.