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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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A Casino at the Khone Falls in Laos?

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos.  Image: Corbis

Khone Falls in Siphandone, Laos. Image: Corbis

At the end of March 2014 the Lao PDR government will consider a proposal to build a special economic zone slated for tourism development and other unspecified commercial uses in Siphandone, one of the world’s most pristine and biodiverse areas.  The SEZ will showcase a casino located less than one kilometer from the famed Khone Falls, the largest in Southeast Asia.

“The Siphandone area is set to become a more sought after tourism destination with many more activities to experience,” remarked Buasone Vongsongkhone, Deputy Governor of Laos’ southern Champassak province on Monday, March 17 after a meeting to discuss the proposal.

Vongsongkhone said the plans for the SEZ will include a casino and other facilities in keeping up with developing tourism trends in the Siphandone and Khone Falls area while protecting the environment.

“At the meeting we discussed how to regulate the casino to ensure the zone has proper security.”

What Vongsongkhone did not discuss was the impact of the new SEZ on the relatively untouched ecosystem of the Siphandone area.  Siphandone, translated as “four thousand islands” is where the Mekong River fans out into a waterfall and islet ridden expanse more than 15 kilometers wide.  The sparsely populated area has been described as an environmental oasis and is home to numerous native fish and bird species.  The Khone falls area is the perhaps the last habitat where endangered freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin can be found in the wild.

Satellite image of Siphandone.  Khone falls is the on left side of the image.  Google Earth

Satellite image of Siphandone. Khone falls is the on left side of the image. Google Earth

Laos’ growing reputation of holding some of our world’s last untouched natural areas and idyllic vacation spots has brought increases in international tourists to Siphandone area.  With the increase in tourism, the need for regulation and protection is obvious, but is marking a zone for economic development first and environmental protection second a sustainable approach or is it just another way for local Lao officials and outside investors to gain quick wealth through the exploitation of Laos’ abundance of resources?

Last week in an article in the Vientiane Times, the official English language outlet for Laos’ state controlled media reported “the government attaches great importance to developing SEZs to boost the country’s growth, which is crucial to lifting people out of poverty and enabling Laos to graduate from the list of least developed countries by 2020.”

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

Mock-up of the That Luang Marsh SEZ in Vientiane.

The track record for SEZs in Laos, often dominated by Chinese and Vietnamese investment, is sketchy at best.  In Vientiane, construction of the That Luang Marsh SEZ (yet to begin commercial activities) has negatively impacted the local urban environment.  The natural wetland filters and holds the capital city’s waste water acting as a terminus of the city’s century-old waste canal system; many of these canals are now blocked by construction.  Much of the That Luang wetland areas has been filled in and long-time residents have noticed an average rise in temperatures as water is removed from the ecosystem. 

In Laos’ northern Bokeo province, the Golden Triangle SEZ dominated by the Chinese owned King Roman Casino complex has a seedy reputation as a conduit for money laundering from China and zone of human trafficking. The SEZ has scarred the scenic views of the Golden Triangle area, also known for its tourism, with open quarry mining and industrial development.

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

King Roman Casino along the Mekong in Bokeo Province, Laos

To make matters worse, the Siphandone area is slated for the construction of the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam located  on the only of Siphandone’s Mekong channels that allows for the passage of hundreds of species of migratory fish.  In September 2013, the Lao PDR government notified the Mekong River Commission that the Don Sahong dam project would begin construction in 2014 despite years of protest and opposition by local and international environmental NGOs.

Eco-tourism opportunities such as river cruises, dolphin sighting tours, village homestays, and fishing demonstrations have brought sustainable sources of income to local communities in the Siphandone area for years.  Investors interested in building large resorts and casino complexes will likely be majority Chinese and Vietnamese taking more than they provide while leaving a stained and irreversible mark on one of the Earth’s most scenic spots.

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