1 Million Livelihoods at Risk From Mekong Dams, Report Warns

Cambodia could lose 43 percent of its fisheries and a million fisheries-dependent livelihoods are at risk if Mekong River countries go ahead with the 12 hydropower dams they have planned on the Me­kong River, according to a draft report released by the Mekong River Commission last week.

At the same time, Cambodia could gain power self-sufficiency and generate $449 million net profit a year during the coming decades from the two dams it has planned on the river, the MRC report states.

The 249-page draft environmental assessment report offers a detailed 20-year scenario of the economic costs and benefits of developing a large hydropower sector on the Mekong River and of the planned dams’ environmental and social im­pact on Cambodia and the region.

A representative of Cambodia’s national Mekong River Committee said that the scale of the dams’ possible impact on Cambodia was cause for concern.

The MRC report outlines how important these dams could be for Cambodia’s national power supply and economy, calculating they would generate 19,740 gigawatt hours of power annually and make the country self-sufficient in terms of electricity. A gigawatt is equivalent to one billion watts.

Cambodia could also generate $449 million per year in power ex­port net benefits, after an initial in­vestment of $10.4 billion to fi­nance the hydropower development, according to the report.

The report states that the risk to Cambodia’s fisheries sector is of special significance.

“While fisheries loss is a risk borne by fisher folk throughout the [Lower Mekong] basin, this is likely to impact Cambodia worst of all,” according to the MRC report. “Cam­bodia has a greater proportion of fisheries dependent population and upwards of 1 million people are likely to be affected by the loss of fisheries, which […] account for between 8 and 16 percent of [Cambodian] GDP,” the report states.

A total of between 170,000 and 340,000 tons of fish might be lost annually in Cambodia when the 12 planned dams on the Mekong block fish migration routes and change river water flow and sedimentation, the report states.

The impact on Mekong and Tonle Sap fisheries could amount to a 43 percent loss of Cambodia’s fisheries, while Vietnam could lose 23 percent of its fish stocks, the report adds. Estimates of the total loss in fish catches in the Lower Mekong Basin countries due to the planned dams range from 700,000 tons to 1.4 million tons, the MRC report said.

“The options to mitigate these effects, [through] building fish passes and fisheries in dam reservoirs, are not capable of compensating for the losses,” according to the report.

Other effects of the 12 dams included blocking sedimentation which would affect “18,000 square kilometers of the Cambodian Floodplain [which] is naturally fertilized by nutrients attached to suspended sediments,” consequently affecting agriculture and flooded forests, according to the report.

The report also points out that 57 percent of Cambodia’s population, or 7.6 million people, live within a 15-kilometer corridor adjacent to the Mekong, a zone that the MRC qualifies as the dams’ “highest impact area.”

Only two of the 12 dams planned on the Mekong River are located in Cambodia, the 980-Megawatt Stung Trek Dam in Stung Treng province and the 2,600-Megawatt Sambor Dam in Kratie province.

But these two dams would be among the most damaging to fisheries, the report states, cutting off fish migration routes to the Mekong in Laos and Ratanakkiri’s Sesan, Srepok and Sedok river systems, resulting in an estimated loss of fish in and outside Cambodia of between 220,000 tons and 440,000 tons, worth between $150 million to $300 million in revenue, according to the report.

Combined, the two dams’ reservoirs would cover 950 square km and would “inundate one of the richest and most biodiverse areas of the entire Mekong system,” the report continues, adding that the dams were “the final threat for the Irrawaddy Dolphin.”

Nearly 30,000 people would also be displaced as a result of the two dam developments, the report states.

Pich Dun, secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong River Committee, said yesterday that he had not yet seen the MRC report. Asked for a reaction on the report’s conclusion that one million Cambodian livelihoods were at risk from the river’s planned hydropower development, Mr Dun said, “The numbers are quite huge, so we need more study and investigation.”

Mr Dun also said the assessed environmental costs were worrying and could require revision of the plans.

“We are also very scared about these numbers… With huge numbers like this, nobody can support dams but Cambodia needs dams,” Mr Dun said.

Officials at the Fisheries Ad­ministration and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy were unavailable yesterday for comment.

Kratie province Governor Kham Phoeun said he supported hydropower development in his province, despite the enormous potential social costs on fishing communities.

“Now we found that a million people will be affected but more than 5 million people need electricity,” Mr Phoeun said. “In general there are always effects in any development. We must minimize the effects.”

“The natural fish stock are already damaged. So we must move to fish farming,” Mr Phoeun added.

The draft report has yet to be completed and a final chapter on possible mitigation and compensation measures for affected population groups is still notably absent from the MRC document.

Anthony Dusan, MRC spokesman, said in an e-mail yesterday the report would be finalized in June and would be used to assess the impact of dam development proposals by MRC countries.

Under a 1995 agreement, any of the four MRC’s members, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand, first must seek formal approval from other member nations before proceeding with hydropower development on the Mekong River

Mr Dusan said the MRC now expected that in the coming months the Lao government would give the organization official notification of the first proposal for a Mekong River dam, the 1,260-Megawatt Xayabouly dam in northern Laos, after which it would take seven months for the MRC members to reach a decision whether or not to support the project.

“The formal prior consultation phase within the MRC […] is scheduled to take seven months,” he wrote.



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