The Mekong River: droughts, dams, and defining a moment in time

26 April 2010 | News story
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The MRC international conference on “Transboundary Water Resources Management in a Changing World” was held in Hua Hin, Thailand on April 2-3, 2010. The conference preceded the MRC Council meeting and the first-ever Mekong Summit of Heads of State on April 4-5. These events were held to celebrate 15 years since the signing of the Mekong Agreement between the governments of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand, and Vietnam in 1995, with the objective of renewing and increasing support for MRC at the highest levels in the four member states, and continuing to build meaningful collaboration with upstream dialogue partners China and Myanmar. These events also took place at a time when the Mekong River is increasingly in the public eye and when decisions are pending that could fundamentally reshape the river, physically, environmentally, socially, and economically.

For the past six months, southwest China, northern Laos, and northern Thailand have been in the grip of an intense drought. As a result, water levels in the Mekong River have been extremely low. However, in the lead up to the summit, Thai media and civil society raised questions about the contribution of Chinese dams to the low water situation in the Mekong. Suspicions were aired that these dams were holding back water and loud calls were made for Thai PM Abhisit Vejjajiva to raise the issue with China. Normally, the Chinese government shares hydro-meteorological data with the MRC in the rainy season. Just before the summit, they shared dry season data for the first time. The presentation by Chen Mingzhong, Deputy Director-General of China’s Ministry of Water Resources, included data showing that there was a balanced inflow and outflow of the Manwan, Dachaoshan, and Jinghong dams, and that outflow from the Xiowan dam in the first part of 2010 exceeded inflow by 500 million cubic metres (indicating that China was alleviating downstream water shortages). Analysis posted on the MRC website shows that in January the water level at Chiang Khong in northern Thailand was actually higher than expectedpresumably because China was releasing more water from the cascade of dams than was actually flowing into them. This extra water ran out in mid February, however, when the river level in northern Thailand experienced a sharp decline.

During the conference there was a focus on learning from international experience with presentations from river basin organizations in China, US, Europe, and Africa. But the program was packed with little time for Q&A. While many of the presentation were interesting in their own right, it was sometimes difficult to see their relevance to the Mekong. More time for discussion or spent in working groups might have yielded insights and lessons learned from basins with very different physical and human conditions. For example, the population density of the Amazon Basin is one-twentieth of that of the Mekong and the development pressures are vastly different; and the Rhine Commission Secretariat is staffed by less than 10 people while the MRC has over 100. And although the potential impacts of climate change were well covered, some of the more immediate issues facing the Mekong were given less attention than they deserved.

In his presentation to the four prime ministers, China’s Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Song Tao gave three examples of international best practice that had been applied to dams on the Lancang: canceling the Mengsong dam because it would have impacted migratory catfish; allocating $30 million for investment in stratified water intake at the Nuozhadu dam to reduce impacts on downstream water temperature; and planning of the Ganlanba counter-regulatory reservoir at the end of the cascade to ensure relatively normal downstream flows.

Vice-Minister Song Tao also made suggestions for future collaboration between China and the MRC including: increasing communication and strengthened trust; strengthening collaboration on navigation to take full advantage of the China-ASEAN FTA and to promote the “Golden Tourism Route”; and collaborating on disaster reduction (floods and droughts). He also proposed technical exchanges and the provision of Chinese technology for hydropower development.

In their speeches at the summit, the prime ministers of all four MRC member countries praised the collaboration with China and thanked them for sharing data in the dry season. PM Hun Sen of Cambodia and PM Bouasone Pouphavanh of Lao PDR went further and invited China (and Myanmar) to seriously consider joining the MRC as members. PM Bouasone also emphasized the cultures of the Mekong, its importance as a tourism destination, and the need to maintain its ecological values. PM Abhisit of Thailand highlighted the importance of the river as a unifying feature within ASEAN.

PM Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam emphasized that the Mekong Delta, Vietnam’s rice bowl, is clearly witnessing changes to the Mekong River. He identified the need for a comprehensive climate change assessment of the Mekong and suggested an international conference in Vietnam to initiate this. In Vietnam’s capacity as Chair of ASEAN, PM Dung invited the PM of Thailand to brief the 16th ASEAN Summit on the results of this first Mekong Summit. He also extended an invitation to all the delegates to the second summit to be hosted by Vietnam in 2014.

Peter Lysholt Hansen, Ambassador of Denmark to Vietnam, delivered the development partners statement, which was endorsed by 19 organizations including the major donors to the MRC as well as WWF and IUCN. Hansen raised critical issues about fisheries, livelihoods, and hydropower development, stating that:

“The Mekong Basin is probably the most productive inland fishery on earth. It provides about 2% of the world’s entire annual fish catch” and adding “Millions of fishers and farmers in the Mekong Basinand especially those in the floodplains and delta areasdepend on the annual flood, sediments and river-borne nutrients to sustain wild fisheries and agricultural productivity”

The statement emphasised that:

“Given their importance, consideration of potential impacts on fisheries must be fully integrated into decisions about the construction and operation of infrastructure, and particularly hydropower, in the basin.”

It is clear that the biggest and most complex issue facing the Mekong today is the proposed cascade of dams on the lower Mekong mainstream, because of the huge inherent trades-offs. Dams would impede the passage of migratory species and reduce the extent and duration of peak floods, thereby reducing capture fisheries downstream. Even a small reduction would have a serious impact on food security. The MRC’s State of the Basin 2010 report is explicit about these consequences. This report also estimates that the benefits of the Mekong’s annual flood exceed the costs of flood damage by a factor of 100. Yet Chen Mingzhong’s presentation emphasized the flood control benefits of the Lancang dams without reference to the potential negative environmental impacts. In one of the most interesting presentations of the conference, the MRC’s Basin Development Programme (BDP) concluded that one million Cambodians could lose their livelihoods if the proposed mainstream dams are built.

Compounding these concerns is ignorance about the range and scope of some of the other potential impacts. For example, dams would block the sediment that keeps the Mekong Delta above sea level. If the delta started to sink, the mangroves would disappear, and HCMC would be increasingly exposed to tropical storms. HCMC could become the next New Orleans with an important difference being that the HCMC region contributes half of Vietnam’s GDP. None of the presentations in the international conference showed how the issue of sediment transport has been successfully managed in large rivers with significant hydropower development.

So while the benefits of power sales would accrue primarily to governments, state owned enterprises, investors, construction companies, and hydropower operators, with some presumed trickle-down benefits, the costs would be overwhelmingly borne by millions of rural poor. How do you design an equitable benefit sharing mechanism under these conditions? The potential inequities are obvious and well documented. The question is: Who decides if the trade-off is worth it? The obvious answer is governments do. But in countries with little or no public participation in decision making and minimal government accountability, what are the implications in the case of large dams where the power gap between winners and losers is vast? And what happens when the losers are not even citizens of the same country where the dam is constructed?

For Vietnam, Mekong mainstream dams in upstream countries are a potential threat to national security because of the possible impact on the economically vital delta, but the issue has not yet featured significantly in the domestic media. And so far in the regional arena, the principle of national sovereignty has trumped real cooperation on a true benefit sharing approach to the Mekong.

Concerns over trade-offs and uncertainties will come to a head this year when the Lao government submits an official notification of its interest in building one or more dams on the Mekong mainstream. This will be a test of the value of 15 years of international support to the MRC. So the MRC has reached a defining moment. Can it rise to the challenge of facilitating a process that takes into account the interests of all stakeholders and then advocating a course of action that may conflict with short-term national interests? If not, then the hundreds of millions of dollars of donor funding since 1995 will arguably have been in vain.


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