In recent years, two powerful narratives have emerged from mainland Southeast Asia. Generally speaking, discussions of the region focus around one of two topics: economic development and environmental degradation. For example, by typing “Mekong” into Google News the first page of results will show articles like this and this. As one can imagine, these two views of Southeast Asia are often in opposition and proponents of each rarely see eye to eye, sometimes going so far as to ignore the other side altogether. Recently, the battleground of these two narratives has been the construction sites of hydroelectric dams (both real and planned) that dot the Mekong River. Proponents of economic development see these dams as a necessary component to continued economic growth in the region. On the other hand, environmentalists point to the unknown ecological costs of the Mekong dams and argue that there are hidden costs to supposedly cheap hydropower. What is lost in the increasingly polarized game of right and wrong is a larger, more nuanced picture of the region and its needs. Some say that the Mekong needs dams while others argue that the region needs better protection measures for its natural resources. But what Southeast Asia really needs is for development fans and environmentalists to stop ignoring each other, and to restart the dialogue.
Both sides in the dam debate bring up great points and the economic development argument, when taken alone, is quite convincing. Firstly, one must recognize that the region is finally at a point where it is ripe for economic development. Following World War II, the mainland Southeast Asia was engulfed in a series of cross-border conflicts and civil wars for almost 50 years. Only with the signing of the Paris Peace Accords of 1991 did Southeast Asia finally reach a state of regional peace (notwithstanding the Burmese ethnic conflict). With this peace, the region was able to finally get on its economic feet. The past twenty years have seen rapid growth across the region and for proponents of the development narrative, this is a good thing. One can easily point to rising income levels, increased conspicuous consumption, or more industries with greater value added as examples of economically positive changes that Southeast Asia has seen in the past two decades.
The argument then follows that the region’s sustained economic growth requires energy production to keep up. As more people can afford air conditioners in rural Thailand and more factories are built in Vietnam, more energy sources have to be found. For developing countries, the options are limited. Currently, coal and natural gas rule the Southeast Asian energy market, with coal predicted to make up almost half of the region’s energy portfolio by 2035. But aside from coal and gas, hyrdopower remains the most attractive energy solution for many. With the Mekong River, mainland Southeast Asia has a seemingly endless energy source available and many tout hydropower’s relatively low cost and carbon-friendliness as major benefits for this bloc of developing countries.
As a 2010 Mekong River Commision points out, “reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to fossil fuel generation options, and efforts to reduce reliance on imported energy and increase supply diversity make hydropower an increasingly attractive renewable energy resource for LMB countries.” Through damming the Mekong, countries that could not otherwise afford carbon-friendly alternatives, like nuclear power, are able to get clean energy to power their economies. To not build these dams would force countries like Thailand and Vietnam to rely more on heavy pollutants like coal and gas, and to not continue economic development would mean a region still stuck in poverty.
Taken by itself, the pro-development argument in favor of dams makes sense. The region’s economies are growing and in order to feed its energy needs, more power needs to be created; hydropower is a carbon-friendly solution to this problem. However, another side to the story is rarely mentioned by dam advocates, but crucial to understanding of the region’s future.
Despite claims that hydropower is environmentally friendly because it has low CO2 emissions, opponents of the dams maintain that damming the Mekong could have catastrophic effects on the region’s ecology. The Mekong watershed, which spans six countries from China’s Tibetan-Qinghai Plateau to its delta in Vietnam, is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world; the river itself has the second highest level of aquatic biodiversity in the world after the Amazon. Environmentalists fear that should these dams be built, the patterns of hundreds of species of migratory fish could be disrupted, causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem in the process. Much of the dams’ opponents’ argument hinges on the fact that the ecological effects of damming the Mekong are unknown; to gamble on the Mekong’s future with hydropower is a dangerous game.
There is also a human element to environmentalists’ argument. It follows that should the dams lead to fish loss in the Mekong, the approximately 60 million people who inhabit the river’s watershed would be affected. Millions of people who rely on Mekong fisheries for their livelihood and their protein sources would lose out. Should this happen, the consequences for the region’s food security are frightening. Many who relied on fishing for their living would be out of a job and most likely pushed into urban centers to look for work or forced into subsistence agriculture, possibly leading to malnutrition. In addition, without fish as a major protein source, many would have to rely on pigs and cows. These animals are high producers of methane, a major greenhouse gas. Thus switching to alternative sources of protein would nullify the argument that hydropower is a carbon-friendly energy solution for the region.
Hydropower’s effect on the flow rate of the river could also have consequences for the Tonle Sap and Mekong Delta, two of the region’s major food producing areas. In the case of Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, the annual recession of the lake’s waters is caused by fluxations in the Mekong’s flow and the recession is what allows for millions of pounds of fish to be caught by local fisherman. A change in the river’s flow rate could affect the Tonle Sap’s fisheries haul. At the Delta, a decreased flow from the river could allow salt water to flow into southern Vietnam’s rice paddies and damage the crop of the world’s number one largest rice exporter.
In all cases, as the argument goes, there has not been adequate research done on the migratory patterns of the Mekong’s fish and the hydropower’s effects on the river’s flow rate, among other things. That is why organizations like the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) call for a ten year moratorium on dam building. While there are some individuals and organizations who are flatly opposed to all dams on the Mekong, most hold views similar to the WWF – there is simply too little information available to decide on hydropower at the moment.
Like the pro-dam camp, those who call for a moratorium on hydropower construction also have powerful arguments. And in fact, there do exist similarities between the two sides. Those in favor of hydroelectric dams often support them over cheaper, more environmentally-degrading energy sources such as coal or natural gas. And unlike the treehuggers that they are often characterized as, environmental advocates’ reasoning still revolves around human prosperity. Aside from arguments for pure conservation of species like the Irrawaddy dolphin, most reasons for opposing the dams stem from worries about damage to fisheries and rice crops in the region – two industries that are vital to both local and national economies.
This is all the more reason for both sides to reconsider their entrenched positions. The pro and con arguments for hydropower development on the Mekong are both valid yet still contradictory. This only points to a need for more collaboration and cooperation between the two camps. Both NGO workers and construction company presidents have a very real stake in the economic and environmental future of the region. What’s more, these two futures are intimately connected. The pattern started by the Xayaburi Dam and now continued by the Don Sahong Dam where dam plans are released and NGOs across the region protest and lobby for the dam’s cancellation is not productive; Xayaburi’s continued construction is evidence of that.
If GDP-focused government bureaucrats, environmental advocates, local fishermen and urban shoppers are to all be satisfied, there must be more communication between all stakeholders. One of the best ways to reach this level of coordination is through holding frequent local, national and regional meetings and conferences. These meetings must include all stakeholders instead of cherry-picking from the respective sides. Instead all members of the regional community must be included in the process. Through frequent face-to-face interaction, stakeholders in Southeast Asia can go from a collection of fractured interest groups to a larger community dedicated to effective and sustainable development in the region. The coordination of something like this would be the most difficult step in the process, but if done right, an inclusive dialogue could have significant and wide-ranging effects for the region. Southeast Asia has indeed entered an era of development, but that need not mean harmful growth, fractured dialogue and disappointed stakeholders. An era of cooperation could be soon upon us.