BANGKOK––Uncoordinated decision-making and unilateral initiatives not only threaten the Mekong River area environment and livelihoods, but could affect security in Southeast Asia.
With four out eight Chinese dams already built on the Lancang, the name for the Upper Mekong River inside China, and nine more either in place or awaiting construction on the river’s middle and lower reaches in Cambodia and Laos, the jury is still out on how these dams will impact on the region. Environmental damage could also damage the economies in the region, in turn causing political strife within the affected countries and damaging the relations between countries.
According to Dr. Richard Cronin, the head of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington, DC, “fragmented decision-making and lack of co-ordination between stakeholders means that all sides are going ahead with their own projects without getting knowing how these work together or impact on the river and region as a whole.” Cronin was speaking at a seminar organized by the American Studies Programme at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.
According to Dr. Cronin, “the river is more fragile than we think, and it will take only a few dams for the river to be changed in ways we cannot fully understand.”
For example, environmental groups say that the Mekong catfish, the third-largest freshwater fish in the world, will be unable to spawn, as it will not be able to get upstream due to the dams.
Other critical voices such as Carl Middleton of International Rivers questioned the labeling of the dams as development projects, saying that they would undermine livelihoods for 60 million people who are dependent on the river.
Additional dams are likely to reduce fish stocks on the river, which is one the most lush waterways in the world. The prevention of silt from the Chinese or upper reaches from reaching the floodplains in southeast Asia could have unforeseen effects on farming and on the sustenance of the river delta.
China controls the upper reaches of the river, where most of the hydro-electric potential is located, much of which comes from melt water off snow-capped peaks, including from Tibet.
Chulalongkorn University academic Dr. Ukrit Pathmanand noted a potential for distrust and discord to emerge, if the changes to the river impact on livelihoods within the Mekong sub-region. “Non-traditional” security problems will fester, with disgruntled people losing fishery income or farmland due to changes in the river, thereby threatening social unrest.
However, Dr. Ukrit added that there are positives and negatives to dam construction––with additional hydropower to be weighed against potential damage caused to the environment and to livelihoods.
A four-country intergovernmental body called the Mekong River Commission aims to better-manage development along the waterway. The MRC had its first summit meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, in April 2010. The body comprises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, but China and Burma have only accepted observer status. Pornlert Lattanan, the president of General Electric (Thailand), said that it is unlikely that Cambodia and Laos will raise the Mekong issue with Beijing, which has close relations with both.
This was seen at the MRC Summit, where Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen put the low waters in the Mekong region down purely to climate change, rather than Chinese dams. His Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva was more nuanced, saying that “this summit is sending a message that all countries in the Mekong Region, both its upper and lower parts, are stakeholders, and we all have to take joint responsibility for its long-term sustainability.” In June Thai officials went further, with Prasarn Maruekpithak, the representative at a MRC meeting in Vietnam, saying that “China’s four dams on the upper part of the Mekong River have already destroyed the river’s ecosystem. Now this giant nation plans to build 12 dams more on the lower part.”
Vietnam is concerned about the dams, some of which are planned for upstream in Cambodia and Laos. Speaking on June 29, Le Duc Trung, the director general of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, is reported to have said, “Vietnam has…great concerns over the research results on the projects [the proposed dams], especially impacts on agriculture and fisheries likely caused by their dams’.
With the dam projects threatening to transform the river into a “series of lakes,” Dr. Cronin suggested that “a tipping point” looms for the Mekong, releasing a report and DVD to this effect recently.
“The impact on fisheries will be almost immediate,” if any more dams are built, he says.
However a representative of a company involved in a project along the Mekong, Thanin Bumrungsap of the ITALIAN – THAI Development Public Company Ltd., said that he believed that the tipping point had already been reached, as it was unlikely that many of the proposed dam projects will be canceled.
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