Lust for power drying up local communities
Some fishermen in Loei province once told me that Buddhist Lent Day was a mark for the rainy season and the time to enjoy high water on the Mekong River. But last week gave a starkly different picture. Water levels on the river were at their lowest in 57 years.
This year-long absence of rain, China cutting the release of water from the Jinghong dam by half and the latest 72-hour trial run of the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower dam in northern Laos are three factors contributing to the low flow.
According to the Vientiane Times, the Lao Energy and Mines Department issued a notice last week saying the fifth generator of the Xayaburi dam would be put on a trial run starting July 17, which would cause sudden and temporary changes in water levels of the Mekong. After this trial, the dam will commence operation in October with a total of eight generators up and running.
The low flow has affected many riverine communities. Fishermen in Chiang Khan and Pak Chom in Loei said they saw sand dunes and rocky outcrops, which were usually submerged, peeking out from the riverbed. In Nakhon Phanom, farmers who use water from the Mekong for agriculture have also been dicing with water shortages.
Since the arrival of the first dam on the upper Mekong in China in the 1990s, there was a cascade of dams constructed there in the following years. Downstream Mekong communities have since experienced unseasonal fluctuations of water levels.
The fluctuations have also affected the river's ecology and aquatic species. Some studies pointed out that these could have altered seasonal fish migrations. The changes have also affected the local agriculture and fisheries sectors.
The trial run of Xayaburi dam has prompted concerns over an even worse impact once it is fully operational.
Xayaburi dam, owned by the Lao government and developed by a Thai firm, CH Karnchang, will be the first among the 11 hydropower projects planned on the lower Mekong to go into operation. About 95% of the electricity generated by the project will be sold to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (Egat).
Mekong communities for so long have raised concerns about the potential impact of the Mekong dams on the environment and livelihoods of 60 million people living the lower Mekong basin in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam.
The cascades from the dams have resulted in a reported decline of fish stocks on the river. Fishermen can no longer rely on fishing as their main source of income. They have adopted mono-crop agriculture, such as growing cassavas and rubber trees, as a second job but have not been able to replace lost earnings due to unstable crop prices.
Once these changes on the Mekong become unstoppable, people may end up feeling less connected to and less able to rely on the river. In addition, they may also feel discouraged from holding rituals and festivals that have stood for a long time as the symbols of their relationship with the river. These include an annual festival for people to pay homage to the spirits of the river and to be reminded to minimise the exploitation of the river. Ultimately, these cultures may even become left behind once people can no longer rely on the river.
But authorities and leaders of Mekong countries have downplayed these impacts because they regard electricity generation from hydropower dams as key to economic development in the region.
According to Egat, power consumption during the peak period in Thailand hits its record high at 30,120 megawatts last summer, increasing from 22,044 megawatts in 2009. Industries and service businesses are the biggest power-consuming sectors.
So it is not wrong to say that the private sector's need for power and the state's top-down approach to energy development are the key driving forces of dam building on the Mekong. But individual consumers cannot escape the blame too given the constant rises in household power consumption.
As long as end-users of electricity fail to appreciate the correlation between their actions and local communities, they are unthinkingly giving their approval for the development of these dams. And the scale of the impact will be increasingly huge. According to International Rivers, at least 39 hydropower plants are completed or planned on the upper and lower mainstream Mekong. Hundreds of such projects are also completed or planned on Mekong tributaries.
Last week's drought on the Mekong should serve as a wake-up call for all of us to change our power consumption patterns and for state bodies to change their development approaches, before the drought on the mighty Mekong becomes a year-round reality.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist, Bangkok Post.
Paritta Wangkiat is a columnist for the Bangkok Post.