Where have all the fish gone? Killing the Mekong dam by dam

The Mekong, a river of wildly majestic fast-flowing currents flowing through six countries, has long enchanted explorers with its rich biodiversity second only to the Amazon.

It is home to the Giant Catfish, and at least 877 fish species sustaining food security for around 65 million people which make the Mekong the world’s most important centre of freshwater fisheries.

“For the people born on the Mekong, the river is like their blood—the principle of life,” says Dorn Bouttasing, a Lao environmental researcher.

Surely it is unthinkable that man would want to endanger or destroy the basis of such extraordinary natural wealth? Such invaluable natural resources, their infinite value defies any attempt to measure with a crude price tag.

My documentary Where Have All the Fish Gone? (Eureka Films) looks at the four Chinese hydropower dams that have been already built on the Lancang (The Chinese name for the upper Mekong), but its main focus is on the Lower Mekong basin shared by Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The four SE Asia riparian nations [except Myanmar] are members of the MRC Mekong River Commission, an attempt to provide an international framework of cooperation, sharing of water resources and some degree of regulation. In spite of a veritable flood of protests from fishing communities and NGOs- in three out of four MRC countries, and opposition from two out of four members of the MRC, the Xayaburi dam project, a large-scale dam on the main stem of the Mekong has still gone ahead. Construction was officially launched on November 7th 2012.

The Xayaburi Dam will trigger an ecological crisis of tremendous proportions. We urge the Prime Ministers of Laos and Thailand to show leadership by cancelling this project,” Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South, a member of the 263 coalition of NGOs from 51 countries.

The dam located in northern Laos, being built by Thailand’s Ch Karnchang Corporation, is financed by the four largest Thai banks and endorsed by the Thai government.

Inside the Mekong River Commission, two governments – Cambodia and Vietnam, strongly objected to its construction but the 1995 MRC Treaty does not provide for any veto. This development clearly paves the way for an era of increased conflict over water resources in the sub-region, and undermines the guiding principles and mandate of the MRC.

Many scientists in Cambodia, Vietnam and Mekong specialists from around the world, have demanded that contruction of Xayaburi -the first dam on the Lower Mekong be suspended. The Xayaburi dam is just the first of a cascade of 11 dams slated to be built along the main stem of the Mekong.

Scientists point out in a strategic environmental assessment of hydropower on the mainstream Mekong that it is the cumulative effect of 11 dams that will drastically reduce water and sediment flow that will inexorably lead to the erosion of bio-diversity, at least 40-50% loss in fisheries, and an alarming deprivation of the main source of nutrition for tens of millions of people.

The scientists involved in this landmark study strongly recommended a moratorium on all dam construction for at least 10 years. But the dam-builders are in a hurry and refuse to wait for more detailed scientific studies to be carried out.

The mighty Mekong, the lifeblood of countless generations of Cambodian, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, is in great danger from the destructive impact of dams, and a headlong rush into hydropower in which Chinese hydropower companies will play a major part.

Rare species -the Giant Catfish and the Irrawaddy Dolphin, will almost certainly be wiped out, if all these dams go ahead. The unique ecosystem of the Mekong is at stake, as well as the livelihoods of around 65 million people who depend on its bountiful resources.

This film looks at the risks and dangers of this cascade of dams. A Cambodian NGO activist asks who will benefit from the dam construction; he queries “development for whom?”

Our film asks what the future costs to communities are? We explore how the losses may far outweigh the benefits of more energy and kilowatts. Who will provide compensation for the loss of fisheries, food security, livelihoods, dislocation of villagers, and the loss of tourism?

Do decision-makers and governments fully grasp that dam impacts are irreversible? Nature is not a machine – if it breaks down can simply be fixed. You cannot bring dead dolphins and devastated eco-systems back to life.

There is an urgent need to inform the decision-makers and energy consultants, that while there are there are many alternatives to hydro-power from dams, for 65 million people dependent on biodiversity and fisheries, there is no alternative to the healthy and natural flow of the Mekong River.  

For more info and purchase of DVDs please contact: Eurekafilmsdocos@gmail.com

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Filed under Cambodia, China, Current Events, Economic development, Energy, Environment and sustainability, Food, Foreign policy, GMS, Governance, Laos, Mekong River, Sustainability and Resource Management, Thailand, Vietnam, water

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