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Are Dams threatening a way of life in Mekong Countries?

The operation of dams along the Mekong River is exacerbating conditions in a particularly dry year and choking off a lifeline for Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Meteorologists in Thailand forecast that 2019 will turn out to be the driest in at least a decade. In the Lower Mekong countries of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, many are also pointing their fingers north to China and Laos for “switching off” two dams, resulting in gravely reduced flows.

For its part, China’s Ministry of Water Resources gave notice that the Jinghong dam in Yunnan province in the nation’s central-south area would be reducing its release by half between July 5 and 19 for “grid maintenance.”

Yet, the Mekong River Commission initially expected no serious effect with early monsoon rains starting. Based in Phnom Penh, the MRC has Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as members and China and Myanmar as dialogue partners.

But as the maintenance work in Yunnan drew to an end, the MRC issued a statement noting that the Mekong had reached a “low record.” Stretches adjacent to Thailand’s Chiang Saen and Nong Khai were particularly dry — a couple of meters below normal levels.

The 1,285 megawatt Xayaburi dam in Laos coincidentally began on July 15 a test run of power production for the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) which is expected to be in full operation by October. Anuparp Wonglakorn, deputy managing director of Xayaburi Power Company, told the Bangkok Post that this had no effect on water flows and instead blamed lower-than-expected rainfall.

“We operate a run-of-the-river hydropower dam that does not need water storage,” he said. “The inflow of water equals the outflow.” Anuparp blamed weak precipitation with only 400 millimeters of rain falling between January and July compared to 1,200mm last year.

Yet, many are drawing a connection between the operation of the dams and the drought conditions in the region.

China has already built 10 dams including Jinghong along the Langcang, as it calls the upper stretch of the Mekong, which it treats as a domestic river. Laos also has the Don Sahong dam under construction near its border with Cambodia, and seven more planned near or along its mainly riverine border with Thailand.

With Chinese assistance, Cambodia has plans to dam the river at Stung Treng and Sambor, but may now be having second thoughts. At the recent “Energy Vision” conference in Phnom Penh organized by the American Chamber of Commerce, Keo Rattanak, the director-general of Electricite de Cambodge, told the audience that he did not want the two proposed dams as part of the country’s energy mix going forward.

Globally, some 3,700 hydropower dams are in the pipeline, but academic studies suggest these generally cost twice their budget, take 50% longer to complete than planned, and often underperform.

In this 2006 photo, children play in rapids near the Pak Mun Dam in northeast Thailand. Experts say the dam destroyed the local fishing industry.    Source Reuters

In Thailand, the 25-year-old World Bank-funded Pak Mun dam operated by EGAT on a Mekong tributary adversely affected more than six times the 262 households initially expected. The dam also destroyed the local fishing industry after vehement opposition from locals and NGOs was brushed aside. Heavy rains, meanwhile, washed away dams and inundated nearby communities in both Myanmar and Laos in 2018.

Thailand’s 485 km Songkhram river, which flows into the Mekong near Nakhon Phanom, has been under threat of being dammed for 40 years.

According to British academic David Blake, the dam could now be built for a mix of reasons. “Perhaps chief among these is the resurgent power of a military-business-bureaucratic alliance under Prime Minister Gen Prayuth Chan-ocha, who now feels emboldened to push forward a number of hydraulic megaprojects,” he commented recently in the Bangkok Post.

Prayuth’s incoming government has placed “devising measures to deal with drought and floods” 11th on a list of 12 important policies that need to be formulated. It has already had to request water releases from China and Laos.

With civil society constrained, political accountability among the six Mekong countries is a moot point. China, Laos and Vietnam are one-party states, and Cambodia is close to being one — it no longer has a parliamentary opposition. The elected governments of Thailand and Myanmar are both constrained by their respective militaries.

Marc Goichot of the WWF Greater Mekong Programme describes the proposed 18 km Sambor dam as a “behemoth” that will end the free flow of the Lower Mekong at huge cost to Cambodia and Vietnam, permanently compromising fisheries and essential silt flows.

“Cambodia has one of the most productive inland fisheries in the world, and it provides affordable protein for all,” Goichot told the Nikkei Asian Review. “Reduction of sediment will cause the delta to sink and shrink, reducing the resilience of 18 million Vietnamese to tropical storms, floods, as well as causing increased salt intrusion and reduced access to freshwater.”

He added, “Keeping the Lower Mekong free flowing would make some 28 million people in Cambodia and Vietnam more resilient to climate and water disasters while improving their food security.”

Many experts believe solar and wind power offer increasingly viable alternatives, and that more dams on the Mekong in particular will be catastrophic. “It is using the river for only one use — hydropower — and the other users are being marginalized,” Pianporn Deetes of the International Rivers group said.

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