Large dams are not the answer to climate change in the Mekong Region

27 August 2015 by Areeya Tivasuradej in Mekong Commons

 

Some may say it is too early to conclude that the changing weather patterns in the Mekong region – be it a longer dry season, unexpected river water level fluctuation, or cold days in early summer – are a result of climate change. Even if we could summarize the large number of expert debates and long list of research papers, it’s unlikely that a clear answer to the simple question “Is climate change happening in the Mekong?” would emerge.

But if instead we look on the ground, local communities along the Mekong River in Thailand will tell you that something is happening to the climate and that it’s not what it used to be.

A study1 just published by local Thai communities who live along the Mekong River, titled “Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Kaeng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Current” reports that weather patterns have been fluctuating oddly over the past several years. In addition, the water level in the Mekong River rises and ebbs unpredictably and unlike the past. These changes have greatly affected these communities who still rely on nature to make their living as fishers and farmers (see also video here).

A riverbank garden in Baan Samrong, Ubon Ratchatani Province, Thailand on the Mekong River in December 2012.  (Photo by TERRA.)



Cold spells and heavy rains: The case of 2011

As an example, we can look back to 2011 when two incidents occurred that appeared odd to many Thai river-side communities and are still recalled now: a highly abnormal cold spell in March 2011 when Thailand is usually warming up ready for the hot season, and then a prolonged period of heavy rainfall that lasted much of 9 months in 2011.

In the Mekong Region, the hottest2 time of the year usually falls in April. It is the same month when Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos celebrate the water festival, which practically speaking is a great way to cool off as the temperature becomes sweltering hot. But back in 2011, a month before this large festive event, the average temperature in Thailand cut to almost half its normal rate to 18 degrees Celsius (°C)3 in Bangkok. In Ubon Ratchatani Province in northeastern Thailand next to the Mekong River, the temperature dropped to around 15 °C.

Daily highest and lowest temperature at Ubon Ratchatani weather station between February and September 2011. (Source: http://terraper.org/web/th/node/1685)
Daily highest and lowest temperature at Ubon Ratchatani weather station between February and September 2011.4

Meanwhile, as the average temperature seemed to struggle to go beyond 25 °C for the whole month of March, the monsoon brought in at least 4 large storms swelling the Mekong River.

To the communities living alongside the river, the most apparent effect of the chill and increased water volume was on the fishery. Local fisher folks hold an intimate knowledge5 of the Mekong fisheries that is passed on from generation to generation. They understand the seasonality of the Mekong River, including how the river’s ecosystems relate to the different types of fish migration, breeding habits, and behaviors. The fishers’ observed that the change in weather pattern and water level in March 2011 caused many fish to become dull6 to find food and instead the fish started hiding behind rocks and in pools. As there were less fish swimming in the river, it affected the fish catch of fishers, such that many fishers gave up fishing during the period as it was uneconomical to spend money on diesel fuel when they knew they could find no fish.

The heavy rainfall that started in March continued on for another nine months. In July 2011, Tropical Storm Nock-ten made land fall, bringing severe flooding to North, Northeastern and central Thailand. Large swathes of farmland, as well as Thailand’s capital city Bangkok, were left under water.

2011’s rainy season added so much water to the Mekong River and made the current so unusually turbulent that many riverbanks and riverbank gardens were flooded or even washed away. Many riverbank farmers lost their crops and therefore their income. Assistance and financial help from the local authorities made their way to some communities, but many admitted that they still had to pay for another round of seeds and sprouts by themselves7 hoping that the river water would not flood their land a second time.

Fish and agriculture are the most basic foundation of the livelihoods and economy of the Thai communities along the Mekong River. Fish are a key source of protein. Riverbank gardens are the people’s homemade salad bar. They are both a steady source of income for many communities. The changing weather and its impact on the Mekong River have impacted both.

A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)
A Thai fisher with a fish caught from the Mekong River in Baan Muang, Nongkhai Province, February 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

Climate change as experts (and greenhouse gas emitters) see it

According to studies done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Mekong River Commission (MRC), climate change will affect and change the Mekong River in the coming years. And there’s no guarantee that locals are ready to face those challenges. IPCC8 and MRC‘s data point out three things that would result from climate change:

1. Increasing temperature across the basin: One consequence of this is that there will be accelerated glacial melt in the Mekong headwaters, which in the long term will reduce the dry season water released from the glaciers
2. More rain in the rainy season; less rain in the dry season: this will greatly affect both agriculture and fisheries across the basin
3. Longer summers and shorter winters: this could lead to warmer water temperatures and could change fish behaviors, especially related to breeding and migration

To alleviate the impacts of climate change, many governments who ratified the Kyoto Protocol – created under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty to reduce greenhouse gases emissions – came up with an idea to create mechanisms to meet their carbon emission reduction goals. One of the mechanisms is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM)9 which provides a long list of projects like renewable energy, methane capture, and reforestation as options to seek carbon credits. Though it sounds like a good mechanism, CDM was never designed to pressure emitters to reduce emissions, but simply to help emitters to “trade-off” carbon emission.

Hydropower development is included in the list of CDM projects. Water is supposed to be a great source of renewable energy to generate electricity as it was at first assumed that dams don’t emit carbon. Yet, recent research10 has revealed this idea to be profoundly wrong and in fact large hydropower dams can have significant carbon footprints.

In 2002, Singapore researchers reminded scientists that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower reservoirs are under-estimated11. Another report12 published in Nature Climate Change points out that hydropower is not as low-carbon as assumed; instead dams produce emissions as they trap sediments and vegetation in the reservoir, which then decay and release methane and carbon dioxide. An academic study by Marco Aurelio dos Santos13 and his team in 2006 indicated that greenhouse gas emissions from hydropower per megawatt could in some cases be as high as fossil-fueled plants, especially in tropical areas. In a letter in Nature Geoscience in 2011, a group of researchers14 called for significant consideration to be given to hydropower dams’ carbon footprint.

But it is not only a dam’s “carbon footprint” that should be of concern. The process of dam construction can wipe out carbon sinks by triggering deforestation within and beyond reservoir areas, as has happened at the Lower Sesan 2 dam15 site in northeast Cambodia. Dams also block sediments and nutrients from making their way downstream to replenish soils, as well as to rebuild the delta areas and avoid excessive river bank erosion. With less nutrients feeding the soil, farmers may opt for chemical fertilizers to replace the missing nutrients, but in the long term this destroys the soil health and creates a cycle of agrochemical dependency – as well as potentially farmer debt.

Climate justice not climate change

Treaties like the Kyoto Protocol should be designed to pressure high emitters of greenhouse gases to reduce their greenhouse gas contribution that lead to detrimental impacts on the earth and on communities, many of whom are being left in an increasingly vulnerable situation. But at the moment it appears designed to find a means to help these emitters’ behavior appear acceptable before the global community by skewing the climate change debate towards carbon credits instead of true reductions.

The Mekong River basin is home to over 65 million people. The ecological diversity16 within the basin sustains the region’s food security17. The Mekong River is second to none when it comes to the amount and diversity18 of fish species which provide both food and income sources in Southeast Asia. But climate change is affecting many people now and it is not stopping. If high emitters of greenhouse gases are serious about addressing climate change, it is time that they started learning about climate justice. They need to learn about the myriad impacts of dams on people19 and the environment, which are already well known to millions of dam affected people globally.

Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)
Flooding of a riverbank garden in Phra Klang Toong village, Nakhon Phanom Province, Thailand in December 2013. (Photo by TERRA.)

The lower Mekong River is already feeling the impact of a series of dams built upstream in China. Thai riparian communities faced another flooding20 in the dry season that spanned between the end of 2013 and early 2014 when the Mekong River unprecedentedly and unexpectedly rose between one and two meters, which lasted for approximately a week before receding. Affected riverside communities lost21 their boats, crops, fish stocks and income as a result of the rapid rise in river level. There was no warning and no government officials reacted to the situation promptly. Locals were left to cope with the situation by their own means. Though no government came forward to confirm if the exceptional water rise and quick ebb were caused by China’s dams, local communities22 stood firm to point to upstream dams for the loss and damages.

With the waning of fossil fuels like coal that are also gaining a bad reputation for releasing large amounts of carbon and creating pollution, some developers and governments are proposing a turn towards hydropower projects and apparently with the support of the CDM. Yet such an approach will never tackle the problem at its root as the current development model champions industrialization and urbanization and still prioritizes high GDP pursued through the use of dirty and unsustainable electricity sources. Large dams are false solutions23 to climate change as they fragment free-flowing rivers and devastate24 local natural resources and communities. Instead a more radical rethinking of development is required, including how we relate to our rivers and the wider ecosystems that could sustain us for the present and future generations.