The Mekong River is useful only for fish and hydropower. Navigation is limited by waterfalls and shoals. Irrigation is only suitable in the lower region and the river is being rapidly fished out.
The famous giant Mekong catfish has been almost extinct since 1970, long before the dam era. This is the world’s largest freshwater fish, up to 3 meters in length and 300 kilograms in weight.
If full mainstream hydropower potential is realized by 2030, it will furnish only a small fraction of the growing electricity demand of the region. However you do the arithmetic, the hydro potential of the lower Mekong is only 23,000 MW and this would mostly be slated for Thailand, the second largest consumer of the region.
China ranks first but has a separate 30,000 MW upstream to itself. Alternative sources will be needed for the entire region. At the moment Thailand depends predominantly on natural gas.
Despite engineering explanations, dams tend to block fish migration routes that can be as long as 1,000 km. Fishermen add to the problem by using massive traps for uncontrolled and underreported catches. It could well be that by 2030 the river will become a long sewer pipe.
Graphic from Radio Free Asia
It all began with the Chinese mainstream dams. The first, the Manwan, went into operation in 1992 and with scant attention. China now has six operating hydropower dams with a combined generating capacity of 11,200 MW. This is only one-third the potential of the Chinese upper portion of the river so several more are on the drawing board.
There is no scientific proof that the Chinese are causing damage to the lower Mekong. It is strictly hydropower. There is little fishing up there, in an area beyond the traditional migration routes. Fishermen in the lower Mekong use the dams as a scapegoat for fluctuating water levels and decreasing catches.
The Chinese consider it farfetched, but an earthquake at one dam could cause a “domino effect” downstream. Engineers claim the dams are earthquake resistant and quote seismic guides as saying there is only a 10% probability of a “moderate” earthquake in the next 50 years. Others are not so sure and point to increased seismic activity along the Tibetan Plateau.
Presently, on 3 August there was a 6.1 magnitude earthquake at Longtoushan, 370 km northeast of Yunnan’s capital of Kunming. Some 370 were killed and 20,000 buildings destroyed. The Mekong dams are some 300 km west of Kunming and no tremors or damage was reported in that area.
The real trouble starts with the mainstream Xayaburi 1,220 MW dam in Laos. Tributary dams in the region have little impact on the main river. Construction at Xayaburi began in 2012 and it is due for completion in 2019.
Despite objections from many quarters, it is pretty much a unilateral move by the Laotian government, backed by Thai interests. Laos only risks opprobrium from its neighbors. Cambodia in fact, has already made a flimsy threat to go to an International Court.
The dam is being constructed by the Thai giant Ch Karnchang and is financed by four of Bangkok’s leading banks. The Thai government’s Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) has contracted to buy 95% of the electrical output.
The 1995 Mekong Rivers Agreement was signed by only four of the six riparian countries. Burma and China are not included. The accord established the Mekong Rivers Commission (MRC) that only requires notification to other members. The commission has no authority and is merely a forum to agree to disagree.
Nevertheless, an objection has been made. International Rivers (IR) of Berkeley, California has sponsored a suit in Thailand’s Administrative Court, mainly challenging the legitimacy of the EGAT contract. This is a back-door approach and is not directly related to the environment.
Ms Pianporn Deetes of IR says the suit is also being supported by 37 Thai fishermen who IR brought to the Administrative Court for supportive demonstrations.
Giant catfish from the Mekong River
This particular Court handles cases of citizens against the government. Hearings are not conducted and the decision is based on two rounds of written petitions and rebuttals. The initial petition was of some 3,000 pages. It would appear that the dam will be well underway before any verdict is made.
According to Ms Pianporn, there are no objections from Laotians because dissent is stifled. Laos is a communist country lacking free elections. Some foreign water experts have left the country. One told imageASEAN that he could not work on mainstream dams because they were “too controversial”. Civic activist Mr Sombath Somphone was abducted by police in December 2012 and has not been heard from since.
In addition to Xayaburi, Laos has already started construction on a small 260 MW dam in the south where the river branches into a series of braids and waterfalls. The main waterfall, the Khone, is the largest in Southeast Asia and the principal reason the river is not fully navigable.
Engineers have chosen the waterfall-free Don Sahong channel which, unfortunately, is most popular with migrating fish. Efforts are being made to dredge the approaches area and coax the fish into an alternative route. If that does not work, expect massive destruction of fisheries. Mega First Corporation Berhad of Malaysia has the construction contract and power will be sold locally.
Oil is being shipped up the Mekong from the Thai port of Chiang Saen to Xishuangbanna in Yunnan, China. It is a tortuous 300-km journey with poor navigation aids along a riverbed loaded with shoals. Only a small portion has been blasted. A major oil spill could mean disaster.
Some analysts look upon the Mekong as an inland version of the battle for the South China Sea. It is power politics with China dominating. Will they move to the lower Mekong?
One cannot expect riparian countries to approve any hydro project. They can, however, demand more studies. This is exactly what happened at a closed-door MRC meeting in Bangkok on 26-27 June. Meanwhile, Don Sahong construction goes on.
There were 28 observers at the conference. Most Western embassies sent representatives. There were two from Japan and three from the USA. Burma and China were absent.