Damned by dam construction? Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Mekong river

Photo: Amina Tagemouati/CC-BY-SA-2.0

Dam construction in Laos has an enormous detrimental impact on the Mekong river, and the people who depend on it for their livelihood in Vietnam and Cambodia. Laos is doing little to address the situation. Cambodia and Vietnam suffer from the drastic consequences of dam construction.

By Victoria Wah, edited by John Pennington

The recent dam construction along the mainstream of the Mekong river in Laos is rapidly destroying the river’s ecosystem. Unique species like the Irrawaddy dolphins face extinction. Year-round fish migration along the river has ceased. Residents living near the river experience a lack of food security and are beginning to resettle.

Laos’s dam projects significantly affect Cambodia and Vietnam

The Mekong’s declining health threatens the region’s economic situation with Vietnam and Cambodia’s economies most severely affected. The recently-constructed dams at Xayaboury, Don Sahong and Pak Beng trap sediment and deprive downstream areas of nutrients. Vietnam’s delta is downstream from those dams and now suffers from huge sediment loss.

This delta is crucial to Vietnam’s economy. Marc Goichot, World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF) lead coordinator for Water and Energy Security in the Greater Mekong, said that the Vietnam delta, “produces 50% of the country’s staple food crops and 90% of its rice exports. It is one of the most productive and densely populated areas of Vietnam, home to 18 million people.”

Many people may have to leave their homes

One fifth of Vietnam’s population live on the delta. The loss of sediment means that they are at risk of losing their livelihoods. Chum Huot, an environmental activist, said, “locals are feeling bad because of the dam’s impacts,” adding that they may move to seek employment elsewhere.

Fisheries and aquaculture bring in VND61.1 trillion (US$2.7 billion) annually. This money would be lost if the delta disappeared. According to a WWF report, Vietnam’s economy would experience an overall decline and its gross domestic product (GDP) would fall by a quarter in two decades without the delta.

The dams are also severely problematic for Cambodia

The dams hamper the water-related activities that dominate Cambodia’s economy. Infrequent irrigation caused by low river flow has caused a loss of fertile farming land. Fish stocks have declined. According to campaign organisation International Rivers, the dams, “would block the main channel passable year-round by fish migrating between Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.”

As approximately 86% of Cambodia’s territory is in the Mekong basin, and fisheries and agriculture constitute 7% and 28% of Cambodia’s GDP respectively, the decline in the fishing and agriculture industries will severely impact the economy.

There is regional support for Laos’s hydropower economy

Despite these ecological and economic implications, regional authorities support the dams. Vietnam has already signed a memorandum of understanding to buy electricity from Laos to meet its growing energy demand, as has Cambodia. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen said, “I want to extend my thanks to the Laotian government for selling electricity at a cheap price to Cambodia.”

The government in Laos aims to build its economy by becoming Southeast Asia’s principal electricity vendor. They plan to build 11 more dams, attracting more foreign investments for their construction to generate more hydropower sales.

The Don Sahong dam and the Xayaburi dam were both backed by foreign investment. In 2015, 43% of all foreign direct investments were concentrated in the electricity generation sector. 76% of all investments in the sector were foreign.

Dam-building losses outweigh the benefits

The losses incurred in dam building outweigh their benefits. The Stimson Center, a non-partisan research centre in Washington D.C, argued that investor-backed dam projects are short-term gains and unlikely to meet Laos’s revenue goals.

Construction of the Don Sahong dam would generate 260 megawatts worth of electricity. The huge economic and ecological losses along the Mekong River outweigh this output. A Mae Fa Luang University study showed that hydropower sales of LAK271 trillion (US$33 billion) from the 11 dams pale in comparison with ecological and economic losses that add up to LAK2,248 trillion (US$274 billion).

The Mekong River Commission cannot stop the dam building

Environmentalists and locals have already pressured the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to veto the dam construction. The MRC, the body created under the Mekong Agreement, is responsible for promoting sustainable development along the river. They have no power to stop these projects. Pham Tuan Phan, chief executive of the MRC Secretariat, explained that the MRC is, “not a supranational organisation or a regulatory body…but a regional river basin organisation where the member countries discuss their needs, concerns and challenges in good faith.”

Under the Mekong Agreement, the MRC must hold a consultation to discuss trans-boundary issues before beginning any projects on the Mekong’s mainstream. The agreement is not legally binding so member countries do what they want. Lawyer Tanja Venisnik said, “the MRC was never a strong mechanism and it’s not an appropriate measure to address these concerns.” Even if local residents disagree with the plans, the government proceeds by claiming that procedures have been followed. The MRC lacks the bite to protect the river and its inhabitants’ rights.

There are still things the MRC should be doing

Although the MRC cannot veto development projects, they should promote the Mekong river’s sustainability. Dr. Philip Hirsch, a Mekong specialist, advocated that the MRC develop cost-effective solutions to sustain the Mekong. He said, “one step is that before we build any more dams, new green energy technologies need to be explored.”

Chhith Sam Ath, country director of WWF Cambodia, proposes that the government look to the Thako Water Diversion Project as an alternative to the Don Sahong dam. He said that it can, “generate almost the same amount of power with dramatically less damage to fisheries, dolphins and ecosystems.” There has been no word about why the water diversion project has not been considered by the authorities.

Dam building will continue despite public disapproval

The government ignores public and international disapproval of dam construction along the Mekong River. Bounnhang Vorachith, secretary-general of the Lao People’s Revolutionary Party and President of Laos, said, “Laos will make an effort to ensure that there will be no impact [in neighbouring countries].” Senglong Youk, deputy executive director at Fisheries Action Coalition Team and coordinator at Tonle Sap Lake Waterkeeper retorted that, “In order to get the (dam) project(s) done, they have to tell the public that there will be no impact.”

Genuine compromise is not on Laos’ agenda – for them they are damned if they dam, and damned if they don’t. The MRC cannot act and the government rejects alternative measures. There is currently little Vietnam and Cambodia can do about it. If that remains the case, dam construction will be the demise of the Mekong river, for so long the lifeblood of several countries.