Not long after an outcry over potentially devastating impacts of a new multi-billion-dollar hydroelectric power plant on the Mekong River, officials have pushed ahead with plans for an even bigger one.
The Xayaburi Dam, built and financed by Thai companies and banks, began operations in late October, the first of at least nine hydropower projects planned for the lower Mekong in landlocked and impoverished Laos.
Xayaburi, which will sell almost all of its power to Thailand, sparked warnings from environmentalists and experts of dire consequences for the river’s migratory fish, sediment flows and water levels, concerns rejected by developers.
More than 60 million people rely for their livelihoods on the Mekong, which begins on the Tibetan Plateau and runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Farming and fishing communities in countries downstream have long felt the impact of China’s large dams built on the upper Mekong. But experts are increasingly alarmed by rapid development on the lower part of the waterway.
“Each of these dams spells death by a thousand cuts for the Mekong’s flow, the fish, the sediment and the water that moves through it, that millions of people depend on,” said Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia program director at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
Laos is moving forward with plans for a 1,460-megawatt project near the World Heritage-listed town of Luang Prabang. A forum on the project held early this month drew 200 stakeholders, according to the Mekong River Commission, a body comprising officials from the countries that share the lower Mekong — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The forum is part of a formal consultation process, aimed at reviewing project plans, voicing concerns, and sharing information, including scientific data collected from the river, the commission said in a statement.
But Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for International Rivers, said such consultations in the past ignored concerns from rural communities likely to be hardest hit. Save the Mekong, a coalition of non-government groups, has called on Laos to scrap the Luang Prabang and other projects.
“It’s very much like ticking a box, a six-month process, and then the project can simply go ahead,” Deetes, whose group advocates for sustainable river management, told UCA News.
Eyler said he was concerned for the welfare of communities forced to relocate to make way for the dam — reportedly several thousand people — along with impacts on tourism since the ancient, riverside Luang Prabang is about 30 km away.
“That stretch of river is going to become a dead section of river.”
Booming Southeast Asia’s growing electricity needs make hydropower an attractive energy source. Supporters see Laos’s efforts to become the “battery” of the region by selling power to neighboring nations as an environmentally friendly solution to helping ease its poverty.
But a dam under construction in Laos that collapsed in 2018 after heavy monsoon rains, killing more than 30 people and leaving thousands homeless, underscored the risks that such projects carry. Experts say some developers have not accounted for the impacts of climate change which will alter rain patterns and bring extreme weather events.
This year’s severe drought in Southeast Asia caused parts of the lower Mekong to dry up, even after monsoon rains, threatening communities living and working on the river. The situation was made worse, according to observers, by dams in Laos and China that were withholding water for their own purposes.
Ecosystems under threat
Environmentalists have long warned that dam projects bring other costs that are not fully factored into the decision-making process. Dams threaten fish populations, especially their migration and spawning patterns, and disrupt water flows, changes that jeopardise the river’s entire ecosystem.
Lao officials at the forum said the government was taking steps to minimise damage to fish stocks, which communities rely on for income, and as a main source of food. Cambodians, for example, derive more than 60 percent of their annual protein from fish.
Officials reportedly said the government would draw from features of the Xayaburi Dam, including passes that allow fish to swim upstream and “fish friendly” turbines. Gates built in the dam would maintain “similar sediment concentration as in natural conditions.”
“We live together in the same Mekong River and Laos will undertake all reasonable efforts to ensure potential significant harms are avoided and mitigated as they would affect not only other Mekong citizens but the Lao peoples,” Chanthanet Bualapha, secretary general of the Lao National Mekong Committee told the forum.
Construction on the project, whose largest shareholder is a Vietnamese company, and whose energy will be supplied to Vietnam and Thailand, is due to start next year.
Eyler said he was skeptical such features could successfully move large numbers of fish along the Mekong, which boasts hundreds of species, saying he feared they would mostly die.
“The success rate for the promotion of migratory fish up and down through a dam is often very, very low,” he told UCA News, adding that the more dams built, the lower the success rate.
“There’s a blind faith that’s put into the effectiveness of these engineered solutions, and it’s a roll of the dice to see what the outcome will be. With the population’s protein intake on the line, we shouldn’t be taking these gambles,” said Eyler, whose book is called The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.
Other experts fear new dams will trap even more nutrient-rich sediment that farmers need to fertilize their fields and that feed fish throughout the Mekong system. They point to the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s rice bowl, that relies on sediment flows to rejuvenate.
“We have lost 77 percent of the sediment,” said WWF’s Greater Mekong water lead Marc Goichot, referring to dams holding back flows, along with sand mining, and other pressures.
“What is left is even more valuable to keep the stability of the riverbank and the Delta. Adding more dams to an already crisis situation is concerning,” he said.