13 Mar A gamble on the Mekong with millions of lives at stake

Written by Nathaniel Eisen Published in Features Read 13148 times

A proposed dam on the Mekong River in southern Laos would provide energy for the region, but at a significant environmental cost


Fishers and farmers have been trying for some time to block the proposed Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in southern Laos. They recently made their views known at a public consultation on the project but it’s likely their concerns will be ignored and the dam will be built. “Great Gamble on the Mekong,” a new documentary by filmmaker and journalist Tom Fawthrop explores the probable dire consequences of the dam and the failure it would represent for a once-promising extra-legal agency, the Mekong River Commission.

The Mekong rises in the Himalayas in Tibet and flows through Yunnan Province in China and then Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, before entering the South China Sea. The latter five Southeast Asian nations form the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB).

Research has shown that the Mekong 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 farming. At the same time, the Mekong has long represented a potential source of renewable energy. China has built six dams on the upper Mekong and has plans for at least 14 more.

Dams have been discussed and rejected on the lower Mekong since the 1950s, though they have been built since then on its tributaries. In 1995, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam signed the Mekong Agreement and formed the Mekong River Commission. 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 would sit 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 on the mainstream of the lower Mekong. In 2012, work began on the controversial Xayaburi Dam in Laos, with as many as 10 to follow.

Cost-benefit analysis

The Lao government and Poyry, the Finnish company it hired to oversee work on the Xayaburi Dam, claim it will provide clean energy for three million people in Thailand and one million in Laos. The MRC says dams on the mainstream of the lower Mekong have the potential to reduce the severity of floods and droughts and that building all 12 would generate US$15 billion in economic activity, create 400,000 jobs and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year by 2030.

A study commissioned by the MRC and completed by the International Center for Environmental Management in 2010 concluded that the 12 dams could meet eight percent of the region’s energy needs by 2025.

However, the ICEM study is clear 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. …”

Laos says it plans to use revenue earned by selling energy from dams for rural roads, health care and education, though during the “concession period” (estimated by ICEM at 25 years) after dam completion, most of the revenues would go to the dams’ financiers and developers.

Academics and researchers with non-profit groups interviewed by Fawthrop for “Great Gamble on the Mekong” say the impact of the dams is impossible to predict but will likely be severe.

“The Don Sahong Dam will only push Cambodia and Vietnam closer to a food crisis,” said Mr Chhith Sam Ath, who works for the WWF in Cambodia. In addition to flooding market gardens along the river and diminishing its stock of fish, they predict that the trapping of nutrients by the dams will affect rice production in Vietnam, one of the world’s top exporters of the grain, and lead to high global food prices.

The 2010 ICEM study concluded that building the 11 mainstream dams on the lower Mekong would reduce “capture” (non-farmed) fisheries by 16 percent. Combined with existing and proposed dams on the upper Mekong and on tributaries in the LMB, this number rises to between 26 percent and 42 percent. Aquaculture projects associated with dams would replace no more than 10 percent of this loss.

Laos and the companies involved in building its dams say they can mitigate fish losses. Poyry claims fish gates will allow 80 percent of migratory fish to pass up and down streams. MegaFirst, the Malaysian company planning to build the Don Sahong Dam claims that making adjoining channels wider and deeper will provide fish with a detour route.

However, the fish gates Poyry plans to use have never been tested on the fish species in the Mekong. The gates need to be designed to take into account the behaviour of individual species and their sensitivity to factors such as oxygen and nutrient levels.

“Whether the fish get across [the dam], you’ll only see when it is built,” Poyry’s senior project manager had admitted. Faulting Laos 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 it could test the technology on a smaller dam on a tributary that would have less impact on the environment.

Many people rely on the Mekong River for fish and trade, including this market seller in Pakse, Laos. Photo: Tom Fawthrop
Many people rely on the Mekong River for fish and trade, including this market seller in Pakse, Laos. Photo: Tom Fawthrop

The political process

In the face of this uncertainty, the ICEM report recommended putting off any mainstream dam construction until 2020 and using the intervening years to more fully study the impact of dams on the upper Mekong and on the tributaries of the lower Mekong. In a five-year strategic plan released in March 2011, the MRC Council also recommended more studies, 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 said Laos had met its obligations under the 1995 agreement and could proceed with building Xayaburi. A year later, in November 2012, Poyry was awarded an eight-year contract to supervise Xayaburi’s construction and engineering and work on the project began. Poyry claimed at the time that it had updated designs to take into account the concerns of downstream nations.

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, Laos announced the start of the after avoiding a PNPCA by claiming the project was not on the mainstream.

In response to diplomatic pressure, Laos consented to a PNCPA that began last July and was required to take six months. Despite opposition from the governments and civil society groups in Vietnam and Cambodia, Laos has signalled 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 have a significant impact on water quality or flow but has no voting mechanism or penalties for not reaching agreement. MRC Secretariat chief executive officer Hans Guttman says in “Great Gamble” that if the parties cannot reach an agreement, the country proposing a project may proceed with it.


Citizens of Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam have lobbied their respective governments to halt the dam. Hundreds of NGOs, local and international (including WWF and International Rivers), have been trying to mobilise the opposition. Thai villagers filed a lawsuit against the state-owned Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand, the National Energy Policy Council, and three other government agencies in 2012, challenging the power-purchasing agreement they entered into with the Laos government for electricity from Xayaburi. In June 2014, Thailand’s Supreme Administrative Court agreed to hear the case.

The international response, apart from the media, has been muted. MRC’s international donors issued a joint statement in January 2013 urging further study before starting work on the dam but have said little else. The United Nations and heads of state have been notably silent.

Fawthrop’s film does not address how concerned outsiders can respond. The answer certainly feels fraught, given the experience of Laos with French colonialism and US military aggression, including the unexploded ordinance that is still causing death and injury. Then there’s the region’s need for clean energy as well as the standard argument about the hypocrisy of industrialised 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 Khone 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 financing the Xayaburi project are “getting nervous” because of letters from anti-dam activists seems like wishful thinking. For the sake of their own credibility, the filmmakers should not have included a cartoon set to Pink Panther music.

Finally, the filmmakers should have addressed how some species came to be endangered before any dams were built. A WWF report, for example, says overfishing was partly responsible for the decline of the giant Mekong 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 This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. ).

This Article first appeared in the March 5, 2015 edition of Mizzima Weekly.

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