With its vast, complex network of tributaries, the Mekong river system has been identified as a valuable source of hydroelectricity generation from as early as the 1960s. Today, the Lower Mekong Basin is a key site for large-scale hydropower dam development,1 and it is estimated that it has the potential to generate 30,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity for the region.2
Regional governments are considering the construction of 88 more dams in the Lower Mekong River basin3 by the year 2030. Over 120 dams are planned for the tributaries and 11 large-scale hydropower dams are slated for the Lower Mekong mainstream, which has the potential to produce over 13,000 MW of hydropower4. While Thailand and Vietnam have already developed most of their tributary sites Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar currently possess the greatest potential for hydropower resource development, and by the year 2030, they’re expected to reach a combined percentage of hydroelectric generation of 96 percent5.
Faced with increasing global energy prices, along with inflated forecasts in energy demand, Thailand and Vietnam view hydropower as an attractive, renewable resource that will not only help meet their exploding energy demands, but also diversify their energy mix. Thailand’s total energy consumption is 80 percent fossil fuel reliant, raising serious questions about the country’s future energy security. For the less-developed host countries of hydropower dams such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, hydropower represents huge foreign direct investment opportunities and the potential for immediate GDP growth fueled by a rise in electricity export revenues6. The Laos government is billing itself as the “battery of Southeast Asia7” with 60 generation projects planned for its tributaries and nine on the Mekong mainstream8, which forms a major component of its projected GDP growth of 7% per year9.
There are several types of hydroelectric power plants and they vary in size. The Clean Development Mechanism10, under Article 12 of the Kyoto Protocol, promotes “small” hydropower as a viable alternative to large scale hydropower dams because they are more environmentally sustainable and directly displace greenhouse gas emissions11. The smallest CDM project12, located in Bhutan, has a generation capacity of 0.1MW while the largest is a 1200MW capacity facility in Brazil13. The CDM defines a hydropower project with an output capacity of 15MW or more as “large”, while the European Union defines a large hydropower project as one with an installed capacity greater than 20MW. Unlike large scale projects, small hydropower projects are subjected to fewer regulations and assessments. They often receive less scrutiny and tend to be viewed as individual projects rather than as part of a series or “cascade” of dams in the region. Thus the cumulative impacts of small dams are often neglected.
Economic and energy related development and security factors across the Mekong region have resulted in a trend of “regional bilateralism”14, where key decisions and investment deals regarding trans-boundary water resource developments are largely made outside of international frameworks, and instead remain cross-border between the strongest economies in the region (Thailand and Vietnam) and the less industrialized, but resource-rich countries (Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar).
A range of private investors, like national banks and multinational companies from China, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, have formed hybrid private-public partnerships with host governments to build hydroelectric dams in the Lower Mekong Basin with the intent to purchase the bulk of that electricity. Only about 10 percent of the hydroelectricity generated in Cambodia and Laos will remain in-country, the rest intended for export15. China has surpassed the World Bank as the biggest financier of large dams globally, with about 25,000 dam projects worldwide, or half the world’s total16. In Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, China has invested more than US$6.1 billion between 2005 and 201117. To date, much of Cambodia’s hydroelectric power expansion has been financed by Chinese corporations, such as the state-owned Sinhydro – the world’s largest hydropower developer18.
All the Lower Mekong Basin countries are members of the Mekong River Commission, the only inter-governmental body tasked with facilitating dialogue between all private and public stakeholders in the region related to water governance, which grew out of the 1995 Mekong Agreement19.
Despite these regional processes, no consensus among MRC members needs to be reached for a dam to be planned, approved, or constructed. This fact has led to several trans-boundary disputes between the public-private dam builders and the people and governments who are downstream from the hydropower dams and most likely to be affected by their construction.
Many of the concerns raised by those opposed to the 11 mainstream hydropower projects are contained in the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA)20. A critical appraisal of the planned 11 large-scale dams on the Mekong mainstream, the 2010 report outlined key concerns echoed by local and international civil society groups, as well as down-stream governments.
In weighing the economic benefits against the environmental costs and the impacts on communities, the key recommendation of the SEA was to defer all mainstream dams for a period of up to ten years, until further studies can be conducted to ensure all stakeholders are informed of the risks. The MRC also warned that the likely costs and benefits of hydropower dams on the Mekong mainstream are likely to be distributed inequitably.
Some of the risks highlighted in the assessment include the livelihoods and food security of more than 70% of inhabitants who rely on the fisheries, riverbank gardens, ecotourism ventures, and fertile agricultural lands of the Mekong Basin for survival.
It is projected that the cascade of 11 dams will transform 55% of the Lower Mekong into a chain of stagnant reservoirs, which in turn will inundate the wetlands and terrestrial ecology of the region, almost half of which is recognized as Key Biodiversity Zones, and 5 percent of which is comprised of National Protected Areas and Ramsar sites. The cost of agricultural production lost to dam land inundation was found to be over US$5 million per year, while the increase in the use of fertilizers due to changes in nutrient and sediment trappings would result in a further US$24 million per year. The MRC report states that the irrigation schemes proposed to mitigate these impacts would generate US$15 million per year, resulting in a net economic loss in agricultural production21.
Due to changes in the Mekong River’s flow and habitat, around 100 species are at risk, including the already critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphin and the Giant Mekong Catfish, which could be driven to extinction. The loss of 26-42 percent of fish stocks is estimated to cost the region US$500 million per year, and threatens the food security of millions of people in the Lower Mekong Basin who rely on those stocks for food and income. Such an outcome could exacerbate growing inequalities in these developing economies and undermine national poverty alleviation goals.
1. International Rivers, ‘Mekong Mainstream Dams Campaign’, http://www.internationalrivers.org/campaigns/mekong-mainstream-dams; http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/volume3/v3issue2/95-a3-2-18/file
2. This does not include China and the Mekong’s hydropower potential within its borders, also termed the Upper Mekong and known as the Lancang in China. It’s capacity is said to be 23,000 MW.
5. Roberts, D. ‘No More Dams on the Mekong’, New York Times, dated September 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/04/opinion/no-more-dams-on-the-mekong.html?_r=0&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Opinion&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article
10. Purohit, P, 2008, ‘Small hydro power projects under clean development mechanism in India: A preliminary assessment’, Volume 36, Issue 6, June 2008, Pages 2000–2015 http://www.iiasa.ac.at/publication/more_XJ-08-066.php
13. Hirsch, P. 2010. ‘The Changing Political Dynamics of Dam Builsing on the Mekong’, Water Alternatives, Vol 3, Issue 2, pp: 312-323, http://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/volume3/v3issue2/95-a3-2-18/file
14. Roberts, D. ‘No More Dams on the Mekong’, New York Times, dated September 23, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/04/opinion/no-more-dams-on-the-mekong.html?_r=0&module=ArrowsNav&contentCollection=Opinion&action=keypress®ion=FixedLeft&pgtype=article
17. Pye, D. ‘Power couple linked to Sinohydro project’, Phnom Penh Post, March 13, 2014, http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/power-couple-linked-sinohydro-project
ICEM Australia, 2010, ‘MRC Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) of hydropower on the Mekong mainstream, Hanoi, Viet Nam, http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/Consultations/SEA-Hydropower/SEA-Main-Final-Report.pdf
Vrieze, P. ‘Optimism and Concern Mark Burma’s First Workshop on Hydropower Dams’, The Irrawaddy, January 23, 2015, http://www.irrawaddy.org/burma/optimism-concern-mark-burmas-first-workshop-hydropower-dams.html