Xayaburi Dam: waves of unpredictable destruction

Two countries in the Lower Mekong River plan to construct 12 hydropower dams. On September 22, 2010, Laos officially announced its Xayaburi hydropower project, the first of these dams. The Saigon Times discusses this issue with Mr. Nguyen Huu Thien, one of the experts who have embarked on research into the environmental impacts of the 12 dams.

We emphasize that the Mekong River should never be used to test whether hydropower dam technology succeeds or fails Photo: Nguyen Huu Thien

What are the impacts of Xayaburi hydropower dam?

Our strategic environmental assessment of the 12 hydropower dams on the Mekong River emphasizes that any of them can inflict permanent and irrevocable damage on the Lower Mekong River. Moreover, Laos is planning to build 10 hydropower dams and Cambodia two dams on the river main stream. If the Xayaburi project gets the nod, it will set a bad precedent.

Who benefits from these dams?

Our calculations show that Laos will enjoy 70% of the benefits while Cambodia and Thailand reap 11-12% each. Vietnam’s share of the economic gain is 5%.

If these dams are all developed, what will be the cost imposed on the Mekong Delta?

The problems are numerous and have not been accurately quantified. For example, the population of white fish will shrink, spelling trouble for black fish and humans. Biodiversity will be at stake because many species, including birds, turtles and snakes, live on fish. Farm productivity will slump and land subsidence will deepen as silt supply slides. Marine resources will wane, too, when nutrient resources from the Mekong River dwindle. Land erosion is likely to accelerate and such sectors as processing, transport and agro-fishery trading can plunge into trouble.

Is it true that your report proposes postponing decision-making to construct dams on the Mekong River for 10 years?

Yes. Please note that we propose postponing decision- making and not the construction. This means whether the dams should be developed is to be reconsidered after 10 years. Several issues must be taken into account. First, the Mekong River connects four countries in the lower reaches and plays a critical social, economic, cultural and ecological role. Second, whether or not these dams sprout up, natural resources in this region are already under mounting pressure. Third, the potential problems of these dams are severe and far-reaching, and uncertainty abounds. Fourth, in the 21th century, there should be a new approach to fostering the development of the Mekong River in line with the needs of countries where it passes through.
We emphasize that the Mekong River should never be used to test whether hydropower dam technology succeeds or fails.

However, since these dams are constructed in other countries, what can Vietnam do?

Actually, the ball is in Vietnam’s and Thailand’s court. Up to 90% of the power output that these 12 dams generate will be sold to Thailand and Vietnam. Laos and Cambodia will consume the remaining 10% only. If Thailand and Vietnam do not purchase such output, these dams are unlikely to be feasible.
Our report clearly states that, without private investors, Laos and Cambodia will be unable to construct the dams. These profit-seeking private investors will not pour in money if demand for the electricity is lackluster.

Given Vietnam’s severe power crunch, will it need to turn to these dams for electricity?

According to the report, if Thailand and Vietnam decide to purchase 90% of the output of these 12 dams, it can only quench 4.4% of Vietnam’s energy thirst in 2025. Once Vietnam has taken into account the devastating damage that the dams inflict on its paddy supply, it will be abundantly clear that the country should not consider these hydropower projects a vital component of its energy security strategy.

If Laos and Cambodia go ahead with these dams, how can the Mekong River adapt?

These dams are one of the greatest threats to the Mekong Delta. This fertile region, which has been nourished by the Mekong River for the thousands of years, will undergo drastic economic, environmental, social and cultural changes after these projects are carried out.

Ideally, these dams should not spring up. If they do, it will be either impractical or costly for the Mekong Delta to adapt because of several factors.

First, the risks are numerous and have not been understood and quantified thoroughly. Second, some forms of damage are irreparable. Fertilizers can only offset the loss of silt up to a point. Dr. Le Phat Quoi from the Institute of Natural Resources and Environment of HCM city says that over the past decades, the fertile soil near the Mekong River has gradually seen a drop in quality as intensive farming outpaces silt deposits.

Duong Van Nha from An Giang University compared paddy yields in regions that differ in silt supply in this province. He found that paddy yields in areas with abundant silt were stable and hovered around 5.86-6.74 tons per hectare. Meanwhile, the yields in areas where silt is scarce stood at only 5.28 tons per hectare although the amount of fertilizer exceeds that in silt-rich areas by 131-134 kg/ha. This means fertilizers cannot replace silt and can engender many environmental problems such as water pollution.

The feed of farmed fish is made of natural aquatic products, which in turn rely on silt in the Mekong Delta. Therefore, farmed aquatic products cannot be perfect substitute for their natural counterparts. Besides, when silt supply sinks, seafood output will fall as well.

Third, apart from the effects of hydropower dams, the Mekong Delta is among the five regions where the deleterious impacts of climate change are most pronounced. Tackling climate change alone is costly and grueling.

What about benefit sharing of damage compensation?

The success of a mechanism for benefit sharing or damage compensation depends on a vast array of factors, including the possibility of quantifying damage and identifying stakeholders. Moreover, implementing such a mechanism entails managerial, administrative, technological and institutional capabilities on regional, national and local levels to ensure transparency, fairness and efficiency.

The damage inflicted by dams on the Mekong Delta spills over several countries, affects millions of people and differs across sectors and individuals. The cost imposed on a farmer whose paddy fields suffer from lower output will differ from that of a fish sauce producer faced with material shortage. How, then, can damage be compensated fairly? How much should each investor pay?

To work out the damage bred, experts must obtain baseline figures immediately, before the dams are constructed. For instance, it is necessary to know current paddy yields, farmers’ income, fish consumption per capita and so on. Subsequently, experts will need to monitor how these figures change following the construction and operation of dams and exclude the impacts of weather and global economic conditions.

These challenges make it hard to develop a proper damage compensation mechanism. Cross-border benefit sharing or damage compensation is even more difficult to carry out.

Sources: SaigonTimes Weekly (Thursday, 3 March 2011)

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