This week in Vientiane, the hydropower industry gather to attend the International Conference and Exhibition on Water Resources and Hydropower Development in Asia.
The conference comes at a time when the pace of dam building on the lower Mekong River mainstream appears to be accelerating at a dangerous speed, and it threatens to leave a path of destruction in its wake.
Even as conference participants champion hydropower as clean and renewable energy, communities along the Mekong and its tributaries are reminding anyone who will listen that electricity is not the only product they need from the mighty river. The Mekong River holds vital social and economic value, as home to the world’s largest inland fishery, which feeds and provides livelihoods for millions of people. The highly productive agriculture and rice fields of the mainland Southeast Asia are also dependent on the river and the nutrients that it transports downstream.
Riverine communities know better than anyone the importance of the Mekong River, yet they seem to have no voice in the conference, or in decision-making over hydropower development as a whole.
The increasing pace of development brings with it greater risks to the Mekong River and her people. Project proponents are fast-forwarding through regional deliberation processes and skipping over key studies needed to fully understand the transboundary and cumulative impacts of the dams. Governments are making critical decisions with no accountability, and overlooking the true environmental and social costs of these projects, leaving those most at risk — communities that depend on the river — to bear the consequences.
In January, the government of Laos announced that a groundbreaking ceremony had been held to mark the start of construction on the Don Sahong Dam’s cofferdam. A part of the dam construction in the pristine Sipandone area — the unique ecosystem of 4,000 islands linking southern Laos and Cambodia — is now visible on Google maps. Despite rapid construction, there is no acknowledgment that the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) regional consultation process for the project has been completed. Neighbouring governments continue to express concern over the project and call for further studies.
Meanwhile, construction of the controversial Xayaburi Dam is more than 50% complete. However updated project designs have not been made public. At a January meeting of the MRC Council, Development Partners repeated requests for designs to be shared, noting that “whether and how the design changes to the [Xayaburi] dam comply with MRC’s Design Guidance for Mainstream Dams still needs to be analysed”.
The Xayaburi Dam’s Power Purchase Agreement is also currently embroiled in a prominent transboundary legal case, which is at the appeal stage in Thailand’s Supreme Administrative Court. At the heart of the case is the failure of Thai state agencies to share project information, conduct transboundary impact assessments and adequately consult with communities in Thailand.
And already, developers seem to be charging ahead with other projects. There’s evidence of construction activities towards the Pak Beng and Sanakham dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream. Both projects are located close to the Thai border and communities in Thailand have expressed strong concerns about the likelihood that the project will be submitted to the MRC’s Prior Consultation process. Particularly when the legitimacy of the process is still in question.
The MRC-assigned Strategic Environmental Assessment, published in 2010, which recommended a 10-year moratorium on all dam building on the lower Mekong mainstream, also warned that the Mekong should never be used as a testing ground for new technology. “Fish-friendly” turbines and fish passage, for example. Sadly this is what it has become.
While the burden of proof should lie with the dam developer, to demonstrate that the project will not cause significant harm, instead it is up to communities and downstream countries to raise concern, to demand further studies and to fight for the preservation of their livelihoods and food security.
If these dams keep moving forward, one of the world’s most productive fisheries will be eviscerated and the regions vital lifeline changed forever, to generate electricity, for which cheaper and more accountable options are available.
Mekong governments and companies must learn from the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, rather than barrelling blindly ahead with further developments. No government should consider further mainstream dam projects until they’ve taken stock of those projects already under construction; to address and resolve outstanding concerns, including the need for transboundary impact assessments along with transparent, participatory and accountable decision-making processes.
In the race to develop hydropower on the Mekong River, those who will lose out are the communities and the ecosystem. It is a loss that the region cannot afford.
Pianporn Deetes is Thailand Programme Director for International Rivers.