Mekong Dams a Long-Term Risk to Food Security

The momentum toward large-scale dams on the Mekong River may be unstoppable, but governments must work fast to mitigate their effects on fisheries and biodiversity or risk long-term food insecurity for millions of people whose lives depend on the river and its tributaries, leading academics said at a conference in Phnom Penh on Monday.

The conference, organized by the Cambodia Development Research Institute, the U.N. Development Program and the Stockholm International Water Institute brought together academics, NGOs and government officials to highlight the fish production challenges Cambodia and Vietnam will face as upstream dams block migratory fish populations and dramatically reduce fish stocks.

“[E]merging research indicates that the threat to food security in the [Mekong] basin is more serious than what was previously thought, and that alternative scenarios to safeguard food security are not readily available,” the organizers of the two-day conference said in a statement.

It has long been decided by the governments of the Southeast Asian countries lying along the Mekong River that damming the 4,400-km waterway for hydropower is the best way to meet increased electricity demands, with 11 major dams planned on the Lower Mekong alone, including seven in Laos and two in Cambodia.

But swift and effective policy responses are needed if Cambodia and other dam-building countries are to offset the imminent risks of those goals.

“Normally, governments take environmental impact assessments. However, they normally don’t take account of specific supplies and nutrition lost in its cost-benefit analysis,” said James Pittock, senior lecturer at the Australia National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, whose research examines the loss of protein in Cambodian diets that depleted fish stocks would incur, since protein is more difficult to replace than calories.

“Cambodia will need to replace 340,000 tons of lost fish protein [yearly] as a result of the 11 planned upstream dams…. So what is the answer to loss of protein?” Mr. Pittock asked.

Expanding production of protein from other sources already in use in Cambodia, such as livestock, is not immediately feasible as it would require a massive increase in pasture land—up to 24,000 more square km, roughly the size of Brunei—as well as additional water, fertilizer, animal feed and increased human capacity, and would result in increased food costs and greater greenhouse emissions.

Expanding aquaculture could help mitigate the loss, but this would also transform subsistence-based farming to market-based farming, potentially making fish too expensive for local consumption and meaning that fish stocks will be lost to export, Mr. Pittock said.

Furthermore, Cambodia stands to gain less financially from the dams than other Mekong nations; with fewer dams of its own, it will produce much less electricity, while lying downstream means its food-security risks are particularly high.

“Our research suggests that Cambodia will be the big loser of the big dams projects,” Mr. Pittock said.

He said that the Tonle Sap—the fourth-largest fishery in the world, producing 500,000 tons of fish per year—could suffer the worst fate, with a 50 percent reduction in fish production over the next 30 years.

“I would argue that the government has a responsibility to explain how food supply will be maintained as well as deciding to build the hydropower dams,” he added.

Work is already underway on the massive 1,300-MW Xayaburi dam in Laos, and the Lao government has unilaterally decided to move forward with the construction of the Don Sahong dam—a 240-MW dam that critics say will seriously endanger fisheries downstream in Cambodia and Vietnam since it blocks one of the Mekong River’s 17 main channels.

The Mekong River Commission—the agency created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam via the 1995 Mekong Agreement to ensure transboundary environmental impact assessments are carried out before large dam projects are green-lighted—has so far failed at established intergovernmental consensus.

“The political and economic nature of hydropower is downplayed by governments, limiting discussion of impacts and alternatives in favor of a short-term focus,” said Nathanial Matthews, a lecturer in geography at King’s College London, adding that technical and scientific solutions are theoretically possible, but are being blocked by shorter-term economic and political considerations.

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