Damming the Mekong

Luang Prabang, Laos and Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Observers predict the debate over how to tap the power of the Mekong River will become a contentious regional issue for the countries through which the waterway flows. In this radio feature for PRI's The World, I look at the conflicting aims between energy needs and environmental and food security concerns along one of the longest rivers in the world.

In tiny Laos, authorities want dams on the Mekong's mainstream to fuel its energy strategy to becoming the battery of Southeast Asia. But downstream in neighbouring Cambodia, the consequences may be severe.


We have no other choice but hydropower.
— Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha

In the sleepy town of Luang Prabang, a Lao boatman dips a paddle into the Mekong River as he calls out to a few passing tourists. He promises top-notch views of the Mekong's iconic blood-red sunsets, then heads off downstream, propelled as much by the river's flow as his boat's engine.

The Mekong is one of the world's great rivers. It has been a key to life in Laos and this part of Southeast Asia for millennia. And like the boatman, Laos itself now hopes to harness its power. The country wants to build the first hydroelectric dam ever on the lower Mekong, which runs from the Chinese border to the South China Sea.

Landlocked Laos is one of the poorest and least-developed countries in Southeast Asia. Authorities in the capital, Vientiane, say using the river to generate electricity is the only way forward.

"The options for development of electric sector here are not many," said Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha, who heads the Laos department of energy promotion and development.

"We have been exploring oil and gas, but the information we have received so far is not so promising. We have no other choice but hydropower." 

The battery of Southeast Asia

Laos wants energy to become the main driver of the economy. And its plans are ambitious. The country already has 12 smaller hydro dams on Mekong tributaries, but it wants to build almost 70 more dams throughout the country, including nine on the Mekong itself.

However damming the Mekong is a risky and controversial move.

The Mekong mainstream should not be used as a test-case for any technological development. The risk is too high.
— Eric Baran

The Mekong's swelling waters provide irrigation for thousands of square miles of farmland in five countries. And its fisheries are a food basket for millions.

Hundreds of kilometres downstream in Cambodia, fisherman Sleh Matly is trying to make a living from the very same river.

"Fish are so important for me and my whole family," Matly said as he squatted on the ground, scraping the scales from a few Mekong fish.

"I need to make a living, and my business is catching fish. If I have fish, then I can sell it to buy rice and support my family. Ask anyone here. They’ll tell you the same thing."

No other country is as dependent on the Mekong fisheries as Cambodia. Eighty percent of the country’s protein comes from fish; and most of that comes from the Mekong system. But conservationists say building even one dam on the lower Mekong could change the river forever.

Chhith Sam Ath, who runs a coalition of non-governmental organizations called the NGO Forum in Cambodia, believes that if Laos's plans go ahead, "it's going to be a disaster. It's going to destroy the whole of the Mekong's biodiversity system."

Sam Ath said food from the Mekong is more than just part of Cambodia's diet. It's woven into the country's culture–especially the pungent fermented fish paste known as prahok.

"Every household in the Cambodian countryside uses prahok," he said. "They could not cook without it. So when prahok is lost, it's going to be a big loss. And that is going to destroy a culture."

Untested mitigation measures

Scientists say mega-projects on the Mekong pose a direct threat to many of the river's more-than one-hundred species of migratory fish. The Lao government has said it will build mitigation measures such as fish ladders into the dam, but fish ladders have fallen short of their mark elsewhere. And fish biologist Eric Baran of Cambodia's WorldFish Centre said there are just too many question marks, and too few studies of how Mekong fish would actually be affected.

"When a mitigation measure is proposed on the mainstream, it's actually not based on any testing," said Baran, who has studied Mekong fish for more than a decade.

"The Mekong mainstream should not be used as a test-case for any technological development. The risk is too high."

Scientists also fear that the impact wouldn't be limited to fisheries. The dams would also trap vital silt and nutrients from flowing to agricultural land and coastal ecosystems downstream.

All of these concerns are making the debate over dams a contentious regional issue. Laos isn't alone in wanting to tap the Mekong's power–altogether there are eleven dams proposed by the five Lower Mekong countries, including two by Cambodia itself. But when Laos announced its plan to actually build the first one, Cambodia joined Vietnam and Thailand in voicing their concern and asking for further study.

Most of our population is living under poverty. We have no capacity to operate a nuclear power plant, importing gas or oil from the Middle East. Only hydropower.
— Xaypaseuth Phomsoupha

Conservationists say that study should include an examination of alternatives to traditional mega-dams. They are pushing for networks of smaller, localized projects, including solar and wind power, and smaller hydropower projects on Mekong tributaries.

Gordon Congdon, of the conservation group WWF in Cambodia, said the big dams and massive national power grids being proposed in Laos represent the technology of the last century.

"We think there's a much better energy future available to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand" than big hydropower, Congdon said.

But renewables are still in their infancy in Southeast Asia, and Lao officials say their potential doesn't compare to hydro. Laos craves energy, and energy chief Xaypasueth Phomsoupha said the country can't afford to wait.

"Most of our population is living under poverty," he said. "We have no capacity to operate a nuclear power plant, or to construct a power plant importing gas or oil from the Middle East. Only hydropower."

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam have all agreed to consult with each other before building a dam on the Mekong. But in the end, Laos says, the final decision to build the first dam on the lower Mekong will be its own.