Back in February, my mother and father-in-law, Pia and Takato, took several boat trips on the Lower Mekong River, meandering their way from Thailand to Laos to Cambodia along with farmers, fishermen, their chicken, fish and other livestock.
Photo by Pia Lodberg
They came back with intriguing stories of people from diverse ethnic groups whose culture and (mostly subsistence) livelihood are deeply entwined with the flow the Mekong. The river provides them with fish and tourist trade and, sometimes even gold (gold panning is a key source of income for many Laotian villagers). In the floodplains along the riverbanks villagers grow rice and vegetables - to consume and sell at local markets.
The Mekong, I’ve been learning, is one of the most biodiverse river systems in the world and is host to the world’s most productive freshwater fishery. More than 60 million people from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam depend on the lower Mekong River for their livelihoods.
But Pia and Takato also came back with darker stories. Stories of dams - proposed and existing - that are threatening the unique livelihoods of these riverine communities as well as the river itself.
China has already placed three dams and plans to put up several more on the upper reaches of the Mekong. The existing dams, environmentalists say, have already led to a drop in the river flow - in 2010 parts of the Mekong were at their lowest level in 50 years - and are causing irreversible change in the river’s ecology. Then yesterday, I learned of yet another proposed dam across the river’s mainstream - the first ever on the Lower Mekong - that could further exacerbate the damage.
The proposed $3.5 billion Xayaburi dam in Laos “would cut across a stretch of the river flanked by forested hills, cliffs and hamlets where ethnic minority groups reside, forcing the resettlement of up to 2,100 villagers and impacting tens of thousands of others,” according to an Associated Press report. It could also push iconic and endangered fish species, such as the Mekong Giant Catfish, to extinction, says International Rivers.
The dam, which would generate power mostly for sale to Thailand, has pit Lower Mekong villagers and environmentalists against the Thai and Laotian governments (For Laos, one of the world’s most impoverished countries, the Xayaburi holds dreams of earning valuable foreign exchange). Chances are if Xayaburi gets the green signal, it would open the door for more dams on the Lower Mekong.
Courtesy International Rivers
Since 2007, there have been proposals to put up 11 dams for the Lower Mekong River in Cambodia and Laos. The Xayaburi was the first of these to be submitted for approval in September 2010 by the region’s governments through a regional decision-making process hosted by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a body set up by Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to manage the river. The commission itself has serious reservations about Xayaburi.
An MRC study released in February warned that dams could reduce the fishery by 300,000 tons of fish a year, with serious consequences for a million people, especially in Cambodia, who depend on fishing. It also feared damage to migrations of about a 100 fish species, among a host of other environmental problems. In fact, MRC has recommended a 10-year moratorium on all mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong.
A decision on the whether to go ahead with Xayaburi or to impose a moratorium is due next Tuesday (April 19) when the MRC will hold a special meeting in the Laotian capital city of Vientiane.
For me, the answer is a no-brainer. Big dams need to go the way of the dinosaurs.
In the past century, poorly-planned, large dams have choked more than half to our world’s big rivers, wiping out species, flooding vast swaths of land, displacing millions of, mostly poor, marginalized and indigenous people. We don’t need more of these when there are better renewable energy options out there that we can, and must, explore.
Save the already threatened Mekong and the lives and cultures of the people who live beside it. Write to the region’s governments here asking them to cancel the Xayaburi project.