Strangling the Mekong

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Newsweek, March 19, 2001, Atlantic Edition
HEADLINE: Strangling the Mekong
BYLINE: By Ron Moreau and Richard Ernsberger Jr.; With reporting by Kevin Platt in Beijing


A spate of dam building has stopped up Southeast Asia’s mighty river and may threaten the livelihood of millions who live along its banks. Great civilizations have flourished along the banks of the Mekong River. The Cambodian kings who once ruled most of Southeast Asia built their glorious temples near the shores of the Tonle Sap lake, the Mekong’s pumping heart. Later the kingdoms of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam variously held sway over stretches of the river until the arrival of the French in the 19th century. From its headwaters high on the Tibetan plateau, the Mekong meanders more than 4,500 kilometers through six countries. It passes through China’s Yunnan province, skirts Burma, divides Thailand and Laos, splits Cambodia, spills its rich silt deposits in Vietnam and then empties into the China Sea. All told, the Mekong supports some 100 million people, who rely on the river not only for their food and water but also to irrigate crops, to travel from one place to another–and, sometimes, just to cool off on steamier days. It is, say Thais, the “mother of rivers.”

Now, like so many of the world’s great waterways, the Mekong is under threat. Rampant, unplanned development has begun to threaten the river’s rich ecosystem, as well as the livelihood of scores of communities along its banks. Constant logging has so eroded the shoreline in places that disastrous flooding is virtually guaranteed; last year’s floods in Cambodia and Vietnam killed 500 people and wiped out herds, crops and orchards. Large-scale fishing operations–some legal, some not–employ large nets and traps to catch hundreds of thousands of fish at one time. Together with poaching, this commercial fishing is wiping out certain species–among them the giant catfish and the trey riel, which gives its name to the Cambodian currency, the riel.

But the greatest danger to the Mekong may be posed by the massive hydroelectric dams–fixtures in the developing world–that have sprung up along its course. The giant cement barriers, most built in the last decade, provide electricity throughout Southeast Asia. But they also block the natural migration of fish, alter the level and quality of water and end the seasonal ebb and flow that is vital to the cycle of mating and reproduction. Pranee Nonjan, a 43-year-old Thai woman, used to fish for a living until the Pak Moon Dam was built in 1994 on a nearby tributary of the Mekong, wiping out her usual catch. She calls the structure “evil” and says, “It destroyed my family’s happiness.”

As in other parts of the world, dam construction along the Mekong has also led to massive deforestation, the destruction of wildlife and the displacement of tens of thousands of poor people who live along the river, chiefly ethnic minorities. That kind of damage is leading to a re-evaluation of whether the benefits of these dams outweigh their environmental and social cost. In a report last summer, the Mekong River Commission–a body that normally champions development projects in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam–warned that the Mekong’s fragile ecosystem was “deteriorating” and added: “Should the present rate of [damage] continue, forest cover, biodiversity, fish stocks and soil quality will be harmed to levels where recovery may not be possible.”

Over the last decade, the Mekong has been treated in many ways like a giant battery. Officials in China and Laos in particular have argued for the river’s potential to generate power and profits–and thereby to develop the still-poor region. Beijing has already erected one massive dam, the Man Wan, across the Mekong, 100 kilometers south of the city of Dali. Two more, the Dachaoshan and the Jinghong, are scheduled to be completed and begin operations within the next two years; nearly a dozen more are in the planning stages.

The Chinese claim that the dams, meant to power the growing cities of Yunnan province, will not harm the Mekong. In fact, Beijing insists the dams will benefit downstream countries by “evening out” the river’s flow, reducing it in the rainy season and boosting it in the dry season. Those opposed to the dams, on the other hand, wonder what would happen during a catastrophic drought or flood in China. Would Beijing close its sluices during droughts to preserve water, turning the downstream flow into a trickle? Would it fling open the gates during floods, releasing a wall of water that could literally wash away Thai and Laotian cities?

Those scenarios may be farfetched. But dams continue to play a key role in China’s modernization drive. Some activists worry that Beijing already acts as if it owns the Mekong. “China is unlikely to change any of its developmental policies because of a negative impact beyond its border,” says Chinese environmentalist Dai Qing. In fact, China has been bullying Laos for years to dynamite the river’s many rocky rapids on the Laotian side to create a deep-water channel, so large cargo and passenger ships could travel from Yunnan to the sea. (China has already blown away its upriver rocks.)

Tiny Laos has not shied away from these massive projects. Some 35 percent of the Lower Mekong’s volume comes from tributaries in Laos, and development officials once pictured the country, whose 5.4 million people have a per capita income of less than $300, as the powerhouse of Southeast Asia, earning precious foreign exchange by selling electricity to Thailand and Vietnam. Captivated by the idea, since 1993 Vientiane has signed preliminary contracts for the construction of 23 dams, and boasted that it would be exporting $350 million worth of electricity to its neighbors within a decade. Four large dams have already been built on Mekong tributaries and are producing electricity.

Laos, however, may have overreached. In the last couple of years its energy ambitions have been sidetracked by the region’s economic slowdown. Thailand and Vietnam have concluded that they won’t need to import large amounts of Laotian power for another decade or so. As a result, Vientiane has had to put several dam projects on hold. Laotian electricity exports this year will reach only $30 million, and some of the country’s leaders are said to regret the government’s obsession with dams. “Younger government officials are quietly fuming that so many resources went into dams for such minimal returns,” says a U.S. aid worker in Vientiane.

Indeed, outside of China the sentiment toward dams in Asia has shifted dramatically. Experts generally agree that dams destroy wildlife and fish habitats. But now even the economic justification for these massive hydropower projects is being questioned. Environmentalists say that once compensation costs for land and the financial damage to individuals are factored into the cost of building dams, many hydropower schemes are not economically viable. Last year the mostly pro-dam World Bank and the World Conservation Union released a major two-year study of the economic, environmental and social impact of 45,000 large dams worldwide. While acknowledging that “dams have made an important contribution to development,” the report added that “in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid by displaced communities and by the natural environment.” Experts estimate that upwards of 100,000 people in China, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam have been forced from their homes by dams.

The report was particularly critical of the Pak Moon dam in Thailand. The barrier, built just three kilometers above the Moon River’s confluence with the Mekong, blocked fish migration in and out of the waterway. Of the 265 fish species in the Moon before the dam was built, only 96 remain–most of no commercial value. Fish catches dropped by 80 percent. As a result, most villagers near the dam moved to Bangkok looking for menial jobs. “If all the benefits and costs were adequately assessed, it is unlikely that the Moon project would be [built today],” the study claimed.

Largely because of that finding, no new dam projects are expected to be approved in Thailand in the near future. “Dams are the biggest threat to the Mekong and a healthy environment,” says Witoon Permpong-sacharoen, director of Terra, a Bangkok-based environmental-advocacy group. “Building a dam is like putting a clamp on the artery of a healthy person. If your blood doesn’t flow naturally, your body will certainly be damaged.”

The $260 million Theun-Hinboun dam, located high in the mountains of central Laos, demonstrates how difficult it can be to strike the right balance between economic growth and environmental protection. In operation since 1998, Theun-Hinboun is the country’s biggest hydropower project thus far. Enrique Crousillat, a World Bank senior economist in Vientiane, calls the dam “a major financial success.” Last year the electricity produced by Theun-Hinboun accounted for two thirds of Laos’s power exports.

But just below the dam, where the Theun becomes the Kading River, the project has cut the river’s normal rainy-season flow in half, turning a virile current into what looks like a stagnant lake. In the village of Pak Kading, where the river meets the Mekong, locals say catches have shrunk dramatically. Tu Mung, a 65-year-old widow, stands on the riverbank with a small wicker basket; perhaps a kilo of small fish flop around inside. Tu says she is working five times harder to catch one fifth of the fish she used to net each day. “I don’t know how I’ll survive if the fishing gets worse,” she says. An added insult to villagers along the Kading is this: they don’t have electricity.

The declining numbers of major fish are the most obvious sign of damage to the Mekong’s ecosystem. The river’s most renowned species–the Irrawaddy dolphin and the giant catfish, which can stretch three meters in length and weigh more than 300 kilograms–have been almost wiped out. Ian Baird, a Canadian fisheries expert who studies the Irrawaddy dolphin, estimates that only about 100 of the highly endangered species still exist in the Mekong mainstream, largely in northeastern Cambodia. In 1969 Thai fishermen near the Burmese border caught 69 giant catfish. In 1998 they caught just one. Even a decline in less exotic fish could cause serious food shortages.

“Mekong fish are essential for millions of people’s food security,” says Jens Grue Sjorslev, an economist at the Mekong Fisheries Project in Vientiane. Along the river’s lower course, running from the steep limestone banks of northern Laos to the humid Vietnamese delta, locals haul in 1.3 million tons of fish annually. That’s four times the yearly catch in the North Sea, one of the world’s great fishing grounds. “These fish are our lives,” says Nhuong, a 43-year-old villager who plies the rich fishing grounds known as Siphandone, or Four Thousand Islands, on the border between Laos and Cambodia. “I’d hate to think what would happen if they all started to disappear.” Trees disappear when dams are built, and that too angers environmentalists. Laos wants to build another major dam along the Theun river, at a projected cost of $1.2 billion. Near the site, in the Nakai Plateau wilderness area, a logging company owned by the Laotian military has already harvested 1 million cubic meters of old-growth trees in preparation for its construction.

Environmentalists fear that the dam, its road network and its 450-square-kilometer reservoir will threaten the few remaining wild tigers and elephants in the area, as well as two mammal species–the goatlike saola and the deerlike giant muntjac–recently discovered there.

The project, known as Nam Theun 2, also threatens to dislocate 4,500 tribal people from the reservoir site. They have been promised compensation and new homes. But Laos has a poor track record with relocations: the 2,000 hill tribesmen who moved to make way for the Houay Ho dam in 1994 received too little land to plant their traditional crops, and many have migrated to towns and cities to look for work. A 1997 Asian Development Bank report admitted that the relocation project was “a disastrous combination of too many people, too little land, with too little external support.”

The World Bank, which promoted Nam Theun 2 a decade ago, is now reviewing the dam’s economic viability and environmental impact. “The World Bank has cooled off considerably on hydropower,” says a Western diplomat in Vientiane. Without approval from the bank, the project may be scaled down or even scrapped. Either way, it would be a major blow to the dam industry, and to the hydropower dreams of the Laotian government.

In the future, the debate over dams may prompt governments to rethink their priorities. “People want development, electricity, jobs and a better life. But they don’t want to sacrifice their animal and aquatic resources to get it,” says Sten Sverdrup Jensen of the Mekong Fisheries Project. “They’d rather eat than have electricity.” The question is, can they have both? The challenge for governments along the river is to figure out how they can move ahead economically without killing the river. Otherwise, the greatness of the Mekong really will be little more than a memory.

With reporting by Kevin Platt in Beijing