At least 13 proposed dams on the Mekong River stretching from China to Cambodia’s Kratie province will likely devastate the river system’s fish stocks, which supply 70 percent of the animal protein consumed by Cambodians each year.
That prediction, made by Australian historian Milton Osborne in a Jan 11 paper published in the Asia-Pacific Journal, is the latest in a long line of warnings from experts and environmentalists about the health of Southeast Asia’s longest waterway and the implications of dams for ordinary Cambodians.
“Where once it was appropriate to write of risks, when assessing the Mekong’s future it is now time to write of fundamental threats to the river’s current and vital role,” Mr Osborne wrote.
Among the proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong, two are located in Cambodia: a 980 Megawatt dam in Stung Treng province, and a 2,600 Megawatt dam in Kratie province.
Pich Dun, secretary-general of the National Mekong Committee, said the government has hired companies to do feasibility studies on the two dams and has not yet received the results.
“The Mekong has the potential to produce [electricity], so we must study it,” Mr Dun said. “We need to study all of the factors to see whether the benefits balance the negatives or not.”
He cited cheap electricity as a likely benefit and acknowledged the possible effects on fisheries and on the river’s ecology.
“If [the dams] have a very negative effect, we will not build them,” he added.
But the nation has more to worry about than just dams built in Cambodia, according to Mr Osborne and others.
China already has three dams up and running on the Mekong and the country is building another two with plans to construct two more, according to Mr Osborne. Once all of these are in operation, they will alter the flooding of the river, block the flow of nutrient-rich sediment and lead to erosion of riverbanks, Mr Osborne writes.
Laos has proposed another nine dams, including one just across the Lao-Cambodian border at the Khone Falls. It is this dam, known as Don Sahong, and the dam in Kratie, known as Sambor, that have come under the most scrutiny, Mr Osborne writes, because they “would block the fish migrations that are essential to insure the food supplies of Laos and Cambodia.”
There is no way to mitigate the impact of these and other dams on fish in the Mekong River system, which includes the Tonle Sap lake and tributaries, according to Mr Osborne. Other experts concur with that assessment.
“Around 70 percent of the Mekong River’s commercial fish catch migrate long distances, which is essential for their life cycle,” wrote Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator for the Bangkok-based International Rivers organization, in an e-mail yesterday. “Building dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream will block these migrations. Experience around the world indicates that these impacts cannot be mitigated.”
So Nam, director of the Inland Fishery Research and Development Institute at Cambodia’s Fisheries Department, agreed that the mainstream Mekong isn’t the best place for a dam when it comes to fish.
“To me, as a researcher, I do not want a dam in the mainstream,” Mr Nam said, specifically mentioning the proposed Sambor dam in Kratie.
“It’s a very important areas for fish to spawn and to develop their life cycle and to drift down to the Tonle Sap for feeding.”
However, Mr Nam, like Mr Dun of the National Mekong Committee, said the benefits of the dams need to be weighed against their negative effects.
“This should be assessed carefully; [we should] not simply say it’s not possible,” Mr Nam said yesterday. “We need electricity; we also need fish…. So we have to work together.”
The Vientiane-based, inter-governmental Mekong River Commission was created in 1995 to jointly manage the resources of the Mekong River. Cambodia, Lao, Thailand and Vietnam are members, but China is not, which underlines the weakness of the organization, according to Mr Osborne.
A spokesman for the body wrote via e-mail on Monday that the MRC is studying the effects of the proposed dams on the Mekong in Laos and Cambodia, as well as possible mitigation measures, and will release the results later this year.
The MRC has a procedure so members can review the hydropower plans of other members, according to MRC Communication Officer Khy Lim, but this process has not yet been initiated.
“While the procedures have not yet been enacted by any country, it is expected that the government of Lao PDR will submit official notification of the Don Sahong project in the near future, leaving it open to the scrutiny of other MRC member countries,” wrote Mr Lim.
However, the MRC does not have the power to tell countries what to do with their dam projects, Mr Osborne notes. He writes: “…There is no existing body able to mandate or control what individual countries choose to do on their sections of the Mekong.”
Chhit Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, urged Cambodia to abandon dams and pursue other ways of generating cheap electricity.
Dams “always create a lot of negative impacts,” he said yesterday. “We would recommend the government to consider…alternate energy: biomass, solar energy and other types.”