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The Myth of Sustainable Hydropower

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Explorers, travelers and traders have long been enchanted by the magical vistas and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong flowing through six countries, from the mountains of Tibet to the delta in Vietnam.

However the voracious demands of an energy-hungry region have led to a headlong rush into hydropower and a simmering conflict over the vitally important water resources of this great international river.

The current plans for a cascade of 11 dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong is a recipe for killing the turbulent spirit of the mighty Mekong, taming its waters and the wonders of nature in the obsessive pursuit of energy at all costs.

The supporters of large dams argue hydropower is an allegedly ‘clean efficient source for of energy.’ They further claim that dams stimulate economic growth and promote development.

However the opposition to all dam projects on the mainstream Mekong, starts with the rural communities along the Mekong and its river basin supporting a 60 million population. The dam developers and government technocrats have failed to examine and study the hidden costs of hydropower, and the irreversible destruction of a unique ecosystem.

A wide-spectrum of critics points to well-documented list of negative impacts: the reduction of water flow and sediment, the huge loss of fisheries, the reduction of food security, and the increasing salinization-intrusion of sea water in the delta, to name but a few serious impacts which run counter to any narrative that dams automatically bring economic progress and “development.”

2016 will be a decisive year for hydropower projects on the mainstream Mekong. The first dam on the Lower Mekong –the Xayaburi Dam is now 60% built. The Don Sahong dam in southern Lao has just been launched, in January this year and a third dam the Pak Beng is being prepared.

Can hydropower on a mainstream river be sustainable?

The unilateral launch of the Xayaburi dam in 2012 and now the Don Sahong dam – second dam on the mainstream of the Mekong, is turning the river away from the historical vision of an international river of cooperation and friendship between Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, and into another conflict zone over the sharing of water resources.

However the government of Laos is not under any pressure from any of the bodies that ought to be grievously concerned: UN agencies like UNEP and FAO .The World Bank, WLE (Water, Land and Ecosystems, a CGIAR consultancy group); the USAID-sponsored Mekong Partnership for the Environment (MPE); nor other bodies that adhere to the mantra of ‘sustainable hydropower’ and environmental protection.

This term identifies a discourse that argues a well-mitigated ‘nice dam’ does not inflict too much damage on the ecosystem. It is a position that offers great comfort and solace to dam developers, investors and banks under fire from environmentalists and scientists.

Within this cluster of concern about water governance and claims to protect the environment of the 4,880 kilometres long Mekong, there is a grand silence by the donor nations and international bodies that greets the decline of the region’s longest river and the launch of yet another dam.

A regional coordinator for the WLE program has argued the case for ‘sustainable hydropower’ and trade-offs.

“We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances”, says Kim Geheb, WLE. “But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a ‘good’ dam.”

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

Xayaburi dam construction site. Photo: Stimson Center

The two dams launched so far on the Lower Mekong in Laos surely do not appear to fulfill any obvious criteria for the sustainability principle of what constitutes a ‘good dam. ‘The Xayaburi and the Don Sahong dams along the Mekong are neither fair nor equitable, for the overwhelming majority of poor farming communities living downstream from these dams. These two dams both lack credible environmental impact assessments (EIAs), have failed to provide any trans-boundary studies, and have been launched in defiance of wide-ranging protest and riparian objections.

Scientific consultants to WWF (The World –Wide Fund for Nature) have issued a number of reports exposing massive flaws in these two projects and the lack of credibility of their assurances of effective fish mitigation.

Latest data published by Catch and Culture MRC’s fisheries publication shows that threat posed to the Mekong is based on hidden economic costs that will occur the Mekong is dammed.

The Mekong is a very special river hosting the world’s largest inland fisheries valued at $11 billion ($11 billion for wild capture but that total figure is $17 billion if fish farms along the Mekong are included.) It ranks with the Amazon for the extraordinary diversity of fish species at around 1000 and scientists are still counting.

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia's Tonle Sap

Fisherman checks his nets on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap

Estimated fisheries contributed $2.8 billion to Cambodia’s economy in 2015. That’s a big chunk of Cambodia’s $16.71 billion GDP. These catches for wild-capture fisheries are directly under threat from hydro-electric dams.

Studies have shown that the projected loss of fisheries, crops and biodiversity caused by dams will result in a staggeringly high deficit, compared to the modest benefits from increased energy and electricity. The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion (for 6 dams) and up to minus $21.8 billion if all eleven dams are built on the mainstream according to a study published by Chiang Rai University

The science shows that it does not even make good economic sense to build more large dams, in a river blessed by such amazing ecological wealth.

The mitigation game fools no one

Sustainable hydropower and its concern to minimize harm to the environment relies heavily on mitigation technology, including such devices as fish passage, fish ladders and even so-called ‘fish-friendly’ turbines.

Christy Owen, party leader of the MPE (The US-Aid backed Mekong Partnership for Environment) explained at a recent forum: “This work can help ensure that new development projects meet the needs of business, while minimizing harm to local communities and the environment.”

Her statement assumes that no matter the high stakes, and the calamitous effects of ‘bad dams’, dams are somehow “destined to go ahead” after a measure of mitigation and refinement

Fish mitigation technology has mostly been applied and tested in northern climes – the rivers of North America, and parts of northern Europe. Importing this technology to the Mekong and other tropical rivers teeming with a vastly greater variety of fish species than in the rivers of colder countries, is seen by most fisheries experts as highly risky at best.

What may work in the rivers of North America and Norway cannot be mechanically transferred to the vastly more diverse fish species and ecology of the Amazon and the Mekong.

Hydropower consultant working with WWF Dr. Jian-Hua Meng views the mitigation carried out by Swiss consultants on the Xayaburi dam as a huge gamble with the river’s natural resources. “They are playing roulette with the livelihoods of over 60 million people. It would not be acceptable in Europe, so why is it different in Asia?” [1]

The mitigation team employed by Mega-First, the Malaysian developer of the Don Sahong dam, has been engineering fish diversion channels so that fish will change their centuries- old route along the Sahong channel which will be totally blocked by the building of the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

NGO mobilization in Thailand against the Don Sahong Dam.

However the MRC panel of experts found no evidence that this engineering project would guarantee the protection of large quantities of migratory fish of many different species by offering an untested alternative migration route to bypass the traditional channel according to MRC fisheries expert Dr So Nam (Pakse MRC technical review of experts December 2014).

Mekong specialist Dr. Philip Hirsch, based at University of Sydney shared with this correspondent “After 30 years of studying dam impacts, I have yet to come across one [dam], whose impacts have been well-mitigated. Let’s start with dams that are already there, before using ‘anticipated mitigation’ as a pretext for going ahead with new projects.”

The evidence is clear: there is nothing sustainable about large dams

A widely cited Oxford University study, published in the journal Energy Policy in March 2014, reviewed data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries, and concluded that large dams in general are not sustainable.

As the authors wrote in a statement attached to the study: “The evidence is conclusive: Large dams in a vast majority of cases are not economically viable. Instead of obtaining hoped-for riches, emerging economies risk drowning their fragile economies in debt, owing to ill-advised construction of large dams.”

The global governance debate has clearly shifted business towards paying more attention to environmental protection issues, but all too often this is more a concern to improve their corporate image and improving their public relations, rather than a genuine will rethink their on-going strategy for damming the Mekong.

From his decades of research in the Mekong region Dr Philip Hirsch concludes: “The impacts of some dams are just too great to mitigate.”

WWF warns that hydropower does not mitigate of climate change. But with the Mekong under threat from an annual decline in water flow from the melting glaciers in Tibet, it can on the contrary exacerbate and drive climate change.

The evidence is steadily mounting that if we allow the Mekong to be comprehensively dammed, climate change will grow worse with increasing droughts and salinization from the ocean. The region will then be saddled with a ruined Mekong and the riparian peoples will be damned into around 20 years time to the tragic and irreversible legacy of unsustainable hydropower.

The only way to save the Mekong is by pushing for the political will of regional countries to understand the ecological wealth and the real economic value of great rivers like the Amazon and the Mekong.

 

References:

Strategic Environmental Assessment of Mainstream Dams …

www.mrcmekong.org › … › Initiative on Sustainable Hydropower The SEA presents trans-boundary impacts of the proposed mainstream … As with any commissioned study, the SEA report is not an official MRC approved document.

2) Mekong communities seek injunction on Xayaburi Dam deal …

www.nationmultimedia.com › national

Oct 16, 2014 – … River yesterday lodged a petition with the Administrative Court in Bangkok, … Court on June 24 to accept the network’s right to bring a lawsuit

Catch & Culture Vol. 21, No. 3 » Mekong River Commission

www.mrcmekong.org › News & Events › Newsletters

Jan 5, 2016 – Lower Mekong fisheries estimated to be worth around $17 billion a year … Catch and Culture is published three times a year by the office of the Mekong River … are available through the MRC website, www.mrcmekong.org

The 2015 study calculates the Mekong net loss at minus $2.4 billion ( for 6 dams) and up to -21.8 $billion ( for 11 dams)

Energy Policy

Volume 69, June 2014, Pages 43–56  Oxford Univesity study on the impacts of large dams .The study is based on data from 245 large dams in 65 different countries.

Should we build more large dams? The actual costs of hydropower megaproject development

http://www.bsg.ox.ac.uk/news/should-we-build-more-large-dams

Latest research pubished in 2015 by Chiang Rai University Mekong research group http://www.mfu.ac.th/nremc/content_detail.php?id=298

Contact the author :

Tom Fawthrop

director of THE GREAT GAMBLE ON THE MEKONG  EUREKA FILMS 2015

eurekacuba@gmail.com

[1] (Interview with the author and film-maker Tom Fawthrop who directed the film The Great Gamble on the Mekong’ Eureka Films 2015).

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Mekong lessons: Reflecting on October trip to Southeast Asia

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I’ve just returned from my first business trip to Southeast Asia with the Stimson Center’s “Team Mekong.”  Below are a few lessons learned and brief observations from our visits in Bangkok, Kunming, Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Hanoi, and Saigon.

Good ideas gain currency

Before I joined the Stimson team in June, I must confess that my outlook on the future of the Mekong region was not filled with optimism. I cannot begin to describe how refreshing it is to join a team that is developing pragmatic and innovative solutions to some of the region’s toughest issues. Moreover, it’s extremely satisfying to watch the deployment of an idea gain momentum among decision makers and begin to take on a life of its own. Simply put, ideas work. At public forums in Bangkok, Kunming and Hanoi and in meetings with regional government officials Stimson’s “Team Mekong” launched a more refined version of the concept of the need for a “New Narrative” on Mekong hydropower development first mooted by my colleagues, SEA Program Director Rich Cronin and Research Associate Courtney Weatherby this March. The New Narrative challenges the current narrative that the construction of 11 dams on the Mekong’s main stem is a prevailing ‘domino theory’ of inevitability based on an emerging body of evidence. Stimson’s most recent report and its main argument can be found here, but it was encouraging to hear the idea confirmed when well informed hydropower experts placed their bets on no more than five dams, all of them above Vientiane excepting Don Sahong.

So if the Lao PDR government is banking on income generated from the construction of eleven main stem dams but only gets five in the end, shouldn’t it consider alternatives? Considering the known and unknown costs of downstream effects on fisheries and livelihoods, it seems prudent for Laos to give the entire basin development plan another look.  As a sustainable, one-country alternative to relieving the pressure of hydropower development on the Mekong’s main stem along with the unbearable downstream costs related to impacted fisheries and livelihoods, the Stimson team is continuing to develop the concept of a Laos national power grid designed for both the export of hydropower and national electrification as an alternative to Laos’ current economic development plan.

The grid would be designed to optimized trade-offs related to the food- water-energy nexus on a basin wide scale. On this trip, we received much encouragement for the national power grid concept from regional government officials, but challenges still remain in convincing Laos as to why national electrification will provide more benefits than the current plan.  As a suggestion, Vietnam, as a most concerned state in regard to downstream impacts can, share the story of the benefits of rural electrification with its neighbor through the history of its own development.  Further, Vietnam’s electricity demand is increasing at 12% year-on-year prior to the TPP and could act as a major purchaser of power generated from a Laos’s national grid.

No clear trends on the China Factor.

I see no clear evidence that China’s state-owned enterprises are trending toward improving practices in Southeast Asia or that there is a concerted move from policy-motivated concessional projects to those based on financial viability. A few firms might be making improvements here or there, but even these firms are not willing to release the details and data supporting these so-called improvements. In the case of Hydrolancang’s Lower Sesan 2 project in Cambodia, the developer claims its fish passages will be successful in protecting vulnerable fish species, but will not release the research or plans for those fish passages for public observation or scrutiny. The message for Hydrolancang and other similar Chinese dam developers hasn’t changed: “We’ve conducted 100% of research relevant to these projects, and we’re confident that all problems will be solved. You only need to trust us.” But trust is built on results and transparent public relations. China simply runs a poor track record on these factors in the Mekong region.

A surprising development is that China’s firms are playing the victim when discussing their Southeast Asian projects. Officers of these firms claim Beijing put them to task on these projects while the firms have to bear the risks and interact with prickly civil society groups, unwarranted Western criticism, and unstable host governments – the Myitsone dam serves as a case in point. Yet they fail to acknowledge the unbalanced stream of benefits granted by concessional contracts or the processes through which these benefits are gained.

Further, these firms often claim to strictly follow the laws and regulations of host countries related to environmental and social impacts. Yet weak states like Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia have promulgated little to nothing in terms of environmental or social safeguards, so these claims of being responsible legal investors are interpreted as trite and non-persuasive.

Lastly, some anecdotal evidence points to Chinese money earmarked for overseas infrastructure development drying up in this latest round of China’s economic downturn. This discovery supports emerging conversations that Chinese firms are investing in more commercially viable or “bankable” projects. However, at the same time China’s One Belt One Road initiative appears to be creating a pool for free money given out on soft terms to any firm interested in constructing a project vaguely related to the objectives of the One Belt One Road whatever they may be. When weighing whether or not China’s upcoming investment on Mekong main-stem dams in the pipeline will be based on strategic motivations or sound financial decision making, this last point is particularly concerning.

New institutional frameworks are forming to coordinate regional policy making.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the Mekong River Commission is NOT the institution to solve the big issues rising the Mekong region, though it still constitutes the only treaty-based intergovernmental organization in the region, and its technical review of the Xayaburi dam and its anticipated critique of the Don Sahong project have caused both developers to delay the projects and spend hundreds of millions on significant engineering changes and additional fisheries research. But in terms of actual governmental engagement, other institutions and bilateral arrangements are beginning to fill this gap. The US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), for instance, in its still nascent form aims to promote higher standards on water resource management and assessment of infrastructure development within the region. The LMI brings together the line ministries of the four MRC countries and Myanmar several times a year in working groups both on functional “pillars” and cross-cutting issues like the water-energy-food nexus, and the prime ministers of the LMI countries meet in the wings of the annual ASEAN-US Leaders Meeting, where transboundary issues and impacts from hydropower dams and other major infrastructure projects can be raised to the extent that the leaders are willing to engage on them.

In response to both the US-led LMI and the waning power of the MRC, China is assembling a multi-lateral organization for joint river basin management called the Lancang-Mekong Dialogue Mechanism (LMDM). Mekong watchers should pay attention to the outcomes of the first vice-ministerial meeting of the LMDM on November 12. Further, Cambodia is negotiating a transboundary environmental impact assessment treaty with Laos and Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar are authoring new sets of environmental and social safeguards related to infrastructure development.

These frameworks are all coming together quite quickly. Yet even the US led LMI is said to be underfunded, uncoordinated, and unsure of its product. China’s forming of its own river basin organization is a welcomed foray into multi-lateral diplomacy, a realm often eschewed by the Chinese, but the intent and purpose of this organization is unclear. Serious cooperation on the use of the water and hydropower development will be highly limited so long as China refuses on national security grounds to provide downstream countries with the results of its hydrological and water quality studies, or the operation of its dams and other water releases from its monster reservoirs.  And whether or not new safeguards in the Mekong’s weakest countries will have teeth or just pay green-washing lip-service is unknown.  These developments all deserve our close attention.

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Lao National Assembly Approves Don Sahong Dam

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Regional media and NGOs in Southeast Asia are calling the controversial Don Sahong dam on the Mekong River a “time bomb,” and the project’s recent approval by the Lao PDR government has initiated a ticking countdown. Daovong Phonekeo, director general of the Energy Policy and Planning Department at the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines said in an email statement released earlier this month that the National Assembly approved a concession agreement for the Don Sahong Dam with Mega First Corp, a Malaysian developer which has never built a hydropower project.

This legislation gives the green light for the project’s construction, which is now planned to commence by the end of the year. While the project’s 260MW hydropower capacity is small and intended for local use, its impacts will be felt region-wide as researchers believe the dam will block off the only channel accessible during the dry season for the yearly migration of hundreds of fish species endemic to the Mekong River. The Mekong is the world’s largest inland fishery with millions of people living along its banks who rely on daily fish catches for food consumption and income.

“The Don Sahong Dam will certainly negatively impact migratory fish moving between Laos and Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. The question is, to what extent, and how much might it be possible to mitigate impacts?” said Ian Baird in an interview with ExSE. Baird is a geologist from the University of Wisconsin with decades of experience researching fisheries and communities in the Don Sahong area. “The risk is high because the Khone Falls area is so important for long distance fish migrations, and because it remains highly uncertain how efficient the measures being developed will be. Many uncertainties remain, but the stakes are high, and this makes the project risky.”

don sahong

The dam is located less than 2 kilometers from the Cambodian border in the Siphandon area of southern Laos. Siphandon, literally “four thousand islands,” is one of the earth’s most unique land and waterscapes. Here the Mekong navigates mazes of rocky channels, creating a throng of islands, and expands to more than 15 kilometers wide at some parts.  A fault line runs through this area creating picturesque waterfalls which attract many thousands of tourists from the region and around the world. . The Sahong channel, where the dam will be built, is the only major channel without a rocky cascade and thus is the only channel accessible by seasonal fish migrations.

Mega First, the dam developer, has conducted research on fish migration over the last 18 months to identify fish species and determine migratory patterns, hoping that findings reveal migratory fish are using other minor channels close to the Sahong channel for migration. A 2014 Mega First study by Kent Hortle, a respected Mekong fisheries expert, suggests China’s damming of the Mekong has regulated the river’s dry season level to permit fish passage through channels previously unavailable to fish.

Increased pressure from civil society groups, international NGOs, and academic research has prodded Mega First to widen and deepen these minor channels, but the effectiveness of these mitigation efforts will not be known until the dam’s construction is completed. Peter Hawkins, the main fisheries consultant for Mega First is on record for saying, “’if these passages do not prove to be sufficient they will continue to work on them to create the best bypass possible.”

The new legislation means dam construction will likely begin before Mega First’s fish mitigation research is complete, making the project a risky gamble. International Rivers’ Southeast Asia director, Ame Trandem called for a two year moratorium on the Don Sahong Dam until more research can be done on impacts to fish migration.

“The Don Sahong Dam is not a done deal,” Trandem wrote in a statement on the International Rivers website. “Until the project developer can prove that [the dam] will not harm the Mekong River’s rich fisheries and the unique ecosystem services it provides to millions of people in the basin, it is in the best interest of Laos and the region to give the Mekong River a much needed reprieve.”

Meanwhile, Laos pledges to maintain productive economic and diplomatic ties with the neighbors that surround the landlocked state.  One must then question Laos’s calculus for pushing forward the dam’s approval process when stakeholders ranging from the official to grassroots levels in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam all have voiced opposition to the project.  However, neighboring governments have yet to comment on the dam’s recent approval.

Moreover, Laos gave only nominal consideration to the regional notification and consultation process mandated by the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental organization of which Laos is a charter member. More critically one must question whether or not the dam’s approval includes a regional or geopolitical calculus at all, since most evidence indicates that the dam serves as a pet project of a powerful Lao political family with prospects and license to develop the Siphandon area for investment and tourism.

Regardless of Siphandon’s development trajectories, waiting until Mega First’s own research is published and vetted by stakeholders is the most pragmatic course forward for the Don Sahong Dam. Any other pathway could gravely impact regional food security, including Laos’s own food supply, and place Laos further at odds with its downstream neighbors.

 

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Silence of the Dammed

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In the ongoing controversy over the costs and benefits of hydropower in the Mekong River basin, there is much debate among governments, private business and civil society especially in Thailand and internationally. But one voice seems to be always silent in this debate: that of the local communities of Laos in whose country at least two mainstream Mekong dams are being built or planned and who will face the brunt of the projects’ impacts.

We never get to hear or see an informed opinion from local communities in Laos about the dams under planning and construction although many of these communities would face being displaced or resettled and lose their fisheries and other river-based livelihoods.

Laos is often perceived as a peaceful, Buddhist country with verdant mountains, rivers and a rural (and laid-back) way of life. While this may be true on the surface, it is a daily fact of life for Laotians that the ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) maintains control over the country’s press and civil society.

This also gives the impression that Laos has for the most part a passive citizenry that is least interested in politics. During three years of my field research in Laos, however, I found many Laotians I met always enjoyed talking about politics with me. They have access to Thailand’s radio and television channels, and understanding Thai language is not a problem. Its just that the politics that they could freely talk about was about Thailand not Laos.

It is not surprising then that the debate about hydropower in Laos is met with silence among Lao people, especially communities, and the people who do voice their opinions are usually those in government or the hydropower business.

Missing voices in Don Sahong

I interviewed people about 10 km from the site of the Don Sahong Hydropower Project (DSHP) located on the Mekong River’s mainstream in the Siphandone area of southern Laos, less than two kilometers upstream of the Laos-Cambodia border.1

The Don Sahong Dam threatens the rich subsistence and commercial fisheries in Laos and could pose impacts also in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam. It also threatens the last remaining population of the Irrawaddy dolphins in Laos whose habitat is the Siphandone area. Moreover, the planned water diversion from the Khone Phapheng waterfalls could undermine the area’s tourism.

The dam builders and government officials have organized many public information activities about the dam and social or environmental assessment studies to evaluate the potential impacts of the DSHP.

I asked my interviewees – the local people in the area – whether they were involved in these studies. Most said they have never engaged in these studies, and did not know about the DSHP’s expected impacts.

“Laos has only one communist party”. Local people always repeat this sentence several times, before somebody clarifies watchfully: “Nobody is allowed to express their opinions against the party. Whether we like the Don Sahong dam or not, it will be constructed..

When I asked them if they know about the potential impacts of the dam, a fisher replied: “I cannot foresee what will happen if the Don Sahong dam is completed. The officials said nothing is going to harm our life. However, I am worried about the reduction in fishing.”

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Dam developers have announced no-fishing zones around the Don Sahong dam site although local fishers have used these areas for their livelihoods for more than a hundred years. (Photo by JeeRung.)

To my surprise, many did not even understand the concept of a dam. One sixty-five year old woman said: “I do not know what is a dam. Will a dam be built here? I asked my children to explain the meaning of a dam.” Another fisher asked: “What is the Don Sahong dam? I never heard any news if it will be located here?”

“Public information activities”

The public information activities being held by the DSHP developer are not like a “public hearing” process where citizens can freely debate the merits and demerits of the project, ask for information, provide alternatives, raise concerns, etc. In fact, the DSHP’s public activities does not include the free, prior and informed consent from potentially affected people before going ahead with the project. Moreover, the available documents such as EIA, mitigation and other plans are not made available in the local language.

I conducted in-depth interviews with local people who had an opportunity to participate in the DSHP’s public information activities. Most interviewees said the information they received were about the dam’s positive impacts provided by the dam developers, but there was no information about the negative impacts. The summary of these efforts at misinformation by the dam proponents are provided in the table below.

photo 3 silence-of-the-dammed-table

Restrictions on media and other freedoms, weak civil society

There are few local civil society or nongovernmental organizations (CSOs/NGOs) dealing with issues of hydropower projects and monitoring them in Laos. Moreover, any emergent grassroots-level NGO working on public policy monitoring are viewed with government suspicion as politically subversive troublemakers. Although a few international CSOs especially based outside Laos have voiced critical views about the Mekong hydropower projects in Laos, their views are ignored by official state policy.

The citizenry of Laos (apart from state officials and some influential groups) has only minimal access to information about pending legislation, changes in regulations, or government policy. There are no established mechanisms for government consultation with civil society groups.

Lao people are also subject to severe restrictions on freedom of expression. The government controls all print and electronic media through the state news agency, Khaosan Pathet Lao. All media content is vetted by the Ministry of Information and Culture. A press law announced in 2001 that would allow limited private media ownership has not yet been adopted. If enacted, it would still impose strict controls, including the power to close publications deemed to be “anti-government”.

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Once Don Sahong is completed, the Don Sadam secondary school will be taken for the site of the hydropower transmission station. (Photo by JeeRung.)

Freedom of speech is restricted by provisions in the penal code that forbid “slandering the state, distorting party or state policies, inciting disorder, or propagating information or opinions that weaken the state.”

Article 59 of the penal code sets a prison sentence of 1 to 5 years for anti-government propaganda. Journalists who do not file “constructive reports” or who attempt to “obstruct” the work of the LPRP may be subject to jail terms of 5 to 15 years. Previous violators are believed to have incurred prison sentences of between 1 and 5 years2. The authorities usually harass the English-language press when it does not toe the official line.

The act of expressing views opposite to the official view of the state administration or public policies in public spaces is considered taboo. Lao authorities have consistently suppressed political antagonists, cracked down on those expressing critical opinions with arbitrary imprisonments and sometimes enforced disappearance3. The most high-profile case has been the “disappearance” of Magsaysay award winner Sombath Somphone. He was last seen in Vientiane in December 2012. Through these measures, Laotian authoritaries have instilled a fear among the populace of free expression of views.

Given this situation described above, it is not surprising that we do not hear about or see the genuine participation or expression of critical views by local communities in Laos regarding the Mekong hydropower projects.

Show 3 footnotes

This article written by JeeRung was originally posted here on the Mekong Commons site.  It is reposted with permission of the author and Mekong Commons.

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Review: Great Gamble on the Mekong documentary

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Khone Phapeng falls in southern Laos; photo by Tom Fawthrop

Fishers and farmers have for some time tried to block a proposed dam on the Mekong River in southern Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR). Most recently, they made their views known at a public consultation on the Don Sahong dam. In all likelihood, however, they will lose and the dam will be built. Great Gamble on the Mekong, a new documentary from filmmaker and journalist Tom Fawthrop, insightfully details the probable dire consequences of this dam, and the failure this represents for a once-promising extra-legal cooperative structure, the Mekong River Commission.

The Mekong runs from the Himalayas in Tibet through China, Burma, Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia, and Vietnam—the latter five forming the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB)—where it empties into the South China Sea. According to Fawthrop, it provides protein and food security for 65 million people in the form of fish for food and trade, and water and nutrients for home gardens and commercial farms. At the same time, the Mekong has long represented a potential source of renewable energy. China has already built six dams on the Upper Mekong, and plans to build at least 14 more.

Dams have been discussed and rejected on the Lower Mekong mainstream since the 1950s, though they have gone up on its tributaries in that time.  In 1995 Thailand, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam signed the Mekong Agreement and formed the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The goal of the MRC is to facilitate cooperation in managing the resources of the Lower Mekong, but it has no final decision-making power.

The proposed Don Sahong dam at the center of this film would sit squarely across the main channel that migratory fish use to bypass the massive Khone Falls near the Lao border with Cambodia. It would be the second dam begun on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong—construction began on Xayaburi, another controversial dam, in 2012—with as many as 10 more to follow.

 

Cost-Benefit Analysis

The Lao government and the Finnish company Poyry it hired to oversee construction of Xayaburi claim that dam will provide clean energy to three million people in Thailand and one million in Lao PDR. The MRC claims dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream have the potential to reduce the severity of floods and droughts, and thatbuilding all 12 would generate $15 billion in economic activity, create 400,000 jobs, and reduce greenhouse gas emmissions by 50 Mtons CO2/yr by 2030. A study commissioned by the MRC, and completed by the International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM) in 2010, concluded that the 12 dams could meet 8 percent of the region’s energy needs by 2025.

The ICEM study is clear however that benefits will not be disbursed equally: “Mainstream hydropower generation projects would contribute to a growing inequality in the LMB countries. Benefits of hydropower would accrue to electricity consumers using national grids, developers, financiers and host governments, whereas most costs would be borne by poor and vulnerable riparian communities and some economic sectors…In the short to medium term poverty would be made worse….”  Lao PDR does plan to use the revenues from selling the energy produced by its dams for rural roads, health care, and education, though during the “concession period” (estimated by ICEM at 25 years) after dam completion, the bulk of revenues would go to the dams’ financiers and developers.

According to the academics and nonprofit workers that Fawthrop interviews in Great Gamble on the Mekong, the exact impacts of the dams are impossible to predict, but they will likely be severe. “The Don Sahong dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis,” says Chhith Sam Ath, an employee of the World Wildlife Fund in Cambodia. In addition to flooding gardens along the river, and diminishing the fish stock, they predict that the entrapment of nutrients by the dams will hurt rice production in Vietnam, leading to higher global food prices.

The 2010 ICEM study concluded that building the 11 mainstream dams on the Lower Mekong would reduced “capture” (non-farmed) fisheries by 16 percent. Combined with the built and proposed dams on the Upper Mekong, and on tributaries in the Lower Mekong Basin, this number rises to 26-42 percent. New aquaculture associated with dams would only replace at most 10 percent of this loss. Lao PDR and its developers claim they can mitigate the losses of fish–Poyry claims fish gates will allow 80 percent of migratory fish to pass up and down streams, while MegaFirst, the Malaysian company planning to dam Hou Sahong, claims making adjacent channels wider and deeper will provide fish with a detour route.

Yet the fish gates Poyry plans to use have never been tested on the varieties of fish found in the Mekong, and fish passes need to be designed to take into account individual species’ behavior and sensitivity to factors such as oxygen and nutrient levels. AsPoyry’s senior project manager conceded, “whether the fish get across [the dam], you’ll only see when it is built.” Faulting Lao PDR for not testing the fish gates in the Mekong before building a dam, when you need a dam to test the gates seems unfair. But they could test the technology on a smaller, less impactful dam on a tributary.

 

The Political Process

In the face of this uncertainty, the ICEM report recommended putting off any mainstream dam construction until 2020, using the intervening years to more fully study the impacts of the dams on the Upper Mekong and on the tributaries of the Lower Mekong. In a five-year strategic plan issued in March 2011, the MRC Council also recommended more study, as well as a thorough Procedure of Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), the internal procedure of the MRC for member countries to consider and offer feedback on the proposals of other countries. Yet eight months later, Poyry announced that Lao PDR had met its obligations under the 1995 agreement and could proceed with construction of Xayaburi. A year after that, in November 2012, Poyry received an eight-year contract to supervise Xayaburi’’s construction and engineering, and construction began. Poyry claimed at the time that it had updated designs to take into account the concerns of downstream nations. Yet in January 2013, Cambodia and Vietnam vigorously protested that their concerns had not been addressed, and demanded a halt to construction. They were unsuccessful.

A similar drama unfolded around the Don Sahong Dam. Last September, Lao PDR announced the start of the Don Sahong Dam, this time avoiding the PNPCA by claiming the project was not on the mainstream. After diplomatic outrage, the Lao government consented to a PNCPA, which began last July and is only required to run six months. Despite opposition from the governments and civil society in Vietnam and Cambodia, the Lao government has signaled its intention to proceed with the dam.

These dams are the first major test of the MRC’s ability to handle conflict among its members. The MRC tasks members with “aiming at arriving at agreement” on projects that significantly impact water quality or flow but has no voting mechanism or penalties for not reaching agreement. The CEO of the MRC Secretariat, Hans Guttman, states in Great Gamble that if the parties don’t arrive at an agreement, the country proposing such a project can still go ahead with it.

 

Resistance

Citizens of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have lobbied their respective governments to halt the dam. Hundreds of NGOs, both local and international (including World Wildlife Fund and International Rivers) have been trying to mobilize the opposition. Thai villagers filed a lawsuit against EGAT, the National Energy Policy Council, and three other government agencies in 2012, challenging the power-purchasing agreement they entered into with the Lao PDR government for electricity from Xayaburi. In June 2014, the Thai Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear the case.

The international response, outside of the press, has been muted. MRC’s international donors issued a joint statement in January 2013 urging further study before beginning dam construction, but have said little else. The UN and heads of state have been notably silent.

Fawthrop’s film does not address how concerned Westerners can respond. The answer certainly feels fraught, given Laos’ historical experience of French colonialism and U.S.military aggression, including the unexploded ordinance that still affects the country. Then there’s the region’s very real need for clean energy as well as the standard argument about the hypocrisy of industrialized nations telling any country to sacrifice growth for environmental protection.

This is the progressive’s dilemma when it comes to foreign policy. Certainly any intervention should come in the form of carrots and not sticks: money and/or technology to develop less destructive sources of renewable energy; promotion of tourism to the region; UNESCO World Heritage Site recognition for Kohne falls, and so on, conditioned on implementing the ICEM report’s recommendations.What Great Gamble on the Mekong makes clear, and what studies of other massive dam projects have proved is that this is a humanitarian issue, and that the poorest will likely suffer the most.

Great Gamble on the Mekong has some distracting elements. The claim that the Thai banks funding Xayaburi are “getting nervous” as a result of letters sent to them by anti-dam activists seems like wishful thinking. For the sake of their own credibility, the filmmakers shouldn’t have included a cartoon set to Pink Panther music. Finally, the filmmakers should have addressed how some species got to be endangered before any dams were built. For example a WWF report says that overfishing was partly responsible for the decline of the great catfish. These critiques aside, this is an important and stirring film.

Nathaniel Eisen is a freelance author interested in the intersections of trade, human rights, security policy, and the environment. Information about the documentary Great Gamble on the Mekong can be found at www.tomfawthropmedia.com. Copies of the DVD can be ordered from eurekacuba@gmail.com.  This post was first published on the Foreign Policy in Focus blog on 12/26/2014.  It is reposted here with the permission of the author.

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Letter to the Mekong River Commission on the Don Sahong Dam

The following is a letter written by Mekong river expert and conservationist Alan Potkin submitted today to the Mekong River Commission’s online stakeholder consultation concerning the Don Sahong dam.  The construction of the Don Sahong dam on the Mekong’s Hou Sahong channel in Siphandon, Laos is a project sparking extreme controversy in the Mekong region.  Despite Vietnam’s and Cambodia’s condemnation of the dam along with a massively successful petition campaign gaining more than 250,000 signatures and increasing local and international coverage of the controversial project, construction for the dam is likely to begin by the end of the year.

Indeed “now is the time to separate fact from fiction”…

Notwithstanding his Googleable scientific publications being exclusively in quantitative algology, rather than in any aspect of ichthyology (not  least fish taxonomy, physiology, and reproductive or migratory behaviors), I had consistently argued that we should accept that Dr Peter Hawkins, Don Sahong’s Environmental Manager, was speaking and acting in good faith until proven otherwise…

Until this latest announcement by him that the altered dry season hydrology above and below Siphandone, following the new release regime
from the Lançang Jiang cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan PRC, will now make it “easier for fish to migrate” through alternate channels other than Hou Sahong during the dry season.

Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

According to years of fieldwork conducted there by Dr Tyson Roberts and Profs. Ian Baird and Water Rainboth, amongst others,
no less than 150 species of fish transit through, or are resident, in Siphandone. Other than their basic taxonomy, almost nothing is known in
sufficient empirical detail about any ofthem to understand exactly what ecological and behavioral cues initiate bi-directional migration and successful reproduction: Water temperature? Current velocity and/or stream stage? Phases of the moon? Subtle chemical alterations? Angle of the sun in the sky/polarization of insolation?

How much change in elevation per unit of lineal distance could be encompassed within a particular species’ genetically-determined
metabolic parameters and swimming musculature to still be a manageable pathway?

All essentially unknown!

The planet’s best understood migratory fishes are the salmonidae of the northern hemisphere, which in any given inland waterway probably never exceed four or five different species having themselves much in common. Yet even now ichthyologists are far from certain over exactly how salmonids are capable of navigating to, and infallibly identifying, precisely that reach of river/tributary wherein they were originally spawned, perhaps even a decade earlier, with most of those intervening years as adults spent offshore in the oceans.

And if any or all of that that were known in exact and correct detail about one or two or three of the most economically and nutritionally
important Mekong species, there would yet be another 140 species, at least, which might be responding to completely different sets of stimulae and environmental cues.

I would be delighted to have these assertions proven false by aquatic ecologists holding credible expertise far greater than my own.

Once again, I would note that available to whomever might successfully navigate far upstream into several of our interactive eBooks, notably
“Mekong-Orwell” —mostly about the Pak Mun debate Xayaboury and Don Sahong— there are linked online videos showing the
rather underdeveloped state-of-the-art of “fish friendly” turbines, and showing the general impassibility of even a 70cm artificial obstruction erected across the migratory pathways of one of the most robust and powerful N. American fish species, but one which lacks any evolutionary history of jumping.

Thanks as always, for all due consideration.

Access the interactive media links below to learn more about Alan Potkin’s work on Mekong issues.
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_actual_outcomes1.final_cfp.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/nam_phit/digital_mekong_planning.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_orwell_eBook/pak_mun_homepages.pdf
http://www.sethathirath.com/mekong_fish_atlas_4.1/welcome.pdf
http://sethathirath.com/EFDNW_UNESCO_1.4.1/nongchanh%20interactive/EFDNW_poster/nongchanh_poster_homepage.pdf
http://vimeo.com/86935784

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Laos Agrees to Discuss Dam Project with Neighbors

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Representatives pose for a photo at the June 26 meeting of the Mekong River Commission

Laos has agreed to open a discussion with neighboring countries on the Don Sahong dam, but stopped short of saying it would delay construction on the controversial project.

In agreeing to the prior consultation, Laos is allowing input from the farmers and fishermen who depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood. It would also provide time for neighboring countries and opponents of the project to conduct a more comprehensive environmental impact study.

The announcement was made on Thursday during a meeting of the Mekong River Commission in Bangkok. Representatives from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia — all members of the commission — participated in the meeting. The agreement provided no provision for delaying the project before an adequate environmental study could be completed.

“Prior consultation does not stipulate any condition on continuing or not continuing” construction of the dam, Hans Guttman, the commission’s chief executive officer, told reporters. Guttman said the prior consultation should begin in July, with the process expected to take about six months. He said Laos did not offer to delay construction on the dam, nor did neighboring countries ask for a delay during the consultation period.

The Laos delegation did not release a statement or meet with reporters following the daylong meeting. Laos has begun preliminary construction on infrastructure at the dam site, despite strong opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia, who requested a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong mainstream until further studies could be completed.

Earlier, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand stated that the dam must undergo prior consultation, as required under the 1995 Mekong agreement, to which Laos is a signatory. The Don Sahong dam is being constructed in the mainstream part of the Mekong River in the southern province of Champasak, nearly two kilometers upstream from the Laos-Cambodia border.

Opponents of the project fear the dam will block the migration of fish and cause a steep drop in the flow of water to those living downstream. Nonn Panitvong, an adviser to the Green World Foundation, said plans to build several dams along the Mekong, would transform the river, the world’s second-most biodiverse river after the Amazon, “into a giant freshwater pond”.

“That would be the end of the Mekong River,” he said.

Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia program director for International Rivers, called on neighboring countries to pressure Laos to delay construction until prior consultation is completed. “Neighboring countries must articulate to Laos their own intentions in what this process means, otherwise, the prior consultation process is likely to have missed the point entirely,” Trandem told ucanews.com.

Trandem said she hopes Laos proceeds with good faith rather than issue an “empty political statement”. “All construction should stop on the Don Sahong dam until a transboundary impact assessment is carried out and meaningful consultation takes place,” she said.

This article by Stephen Steele was originally posted here on June 27, 2014 on the UCA News website.

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