Mekong: From threats to alternatives



Posted on 29 December 2003  | 
A man in a fishing boat on the Mekong river in Laos.
© WWF-Canon / Michèle DÉPRAZEnlarge
Like the Yangtze, the Mekong River rises in the Tibetan Himalayas. Fed by melting snow, it begins its 4,200 km journey through steep mountain gorges in China, gathering power from streams along the way, passing through parts of Burma, Laos and Thailand before heading into Cambodia and entering the South China Sea in South Vietnam. This long journey to the delta from 5,000 metres above sea level bears witness to an abundance of biological riches.
 
The basin's 800,000 sq km is home to 1,300 fish species and rich but largely unknown mollusc and turtle fauna. The river is one of the last strongholds of the remarkable Irriwaddy river dolphin. Wetlands in the basin harbour rare species such as the Siamese crocodile and Sarus crane. The remaining forests in the area are home to a spectacular array of mammals, including charismatic and endangered species like the tiger and several large herbivores that have only been discovered in the last decade. Three sites in Cambodia have been designated as wetlands of international importance under the Ramsar Convention, and two areas of the Mekong River basin qualify as endemic bird areas.
 
But environmentalists in the region have been expressing worries about the significant deterioration of the Mekong's biodiversity. More sustainable options should be implemented urgently, they say.
 
Threats to the Mekong River
The ecology of the Mekong River basin has long been threatened by unsustainable activities, but alternatives are increasingly being introduced to safeguard the basin's natural resources, prevent further destruction of biodiversity and maintain the region's food security. Large river engineering projects on the river's tributaries are the biggest threats.
 
The largest and longest river in South-East Asia, the Mekong supports the second most diverse river faunas in the world after the Amazon, a natural asset now undermined by hydro projects. The second dam on the Mekong main stream is scheduled for China's Yunnan province. The 1,350 mw Daochaoshan project is the second of a planned cascade of at least 14 hydroelectric dams nearing completion later this year.
 
Twelve major areas of river bed from Yunnan to Thailand's northern province Chiang Rai will also be blasted to eliminate rapids and deepen the bed for commercial navigation. This plan is part of an agreement signed by Thailand, Burma, Laos and China to promote tourism and commercial navigation.
 
In Thailand, two massive water-diversion projects are under way. The Kong-Chi-Mun is in it first construction phase, while the Kok-Ing-Nan is still at the planning stage but is being pushed hard by the Government.
 
The Kong-Chi-Mun project, comprising more than 20 dams on the Chi and Mun Rivers, would create arid areas along the Mekong River in the north-eastern provinces, while the Kok-Ing-Nan aims to divert the Kok River (a Mekong tributary) northwards. The Kong-Chi-Mun is facing local opposition because of its social and environmental impacts, especially salination of the soil.
 
The Pak Mun Dam on the Mun River (another Mekong tributary), in Ubon Ratchathani province, has had severe environmental and social effects (especially on fisheries), apart from its lack of economic viability. The dam was completed in 1994, soon causing local fish species to decline since most are migratory, and aggravated the food crisis, affecting many local people. Villagers are now pressing the Thai Government to open the dam's sluices permanently in order to solve the crisis.
 
During the past decade, Thailand has played a significant role in encouraging hydroelectric projects in neighbouring countries as part of its policy to promote electricity imports to meet its demand. In Laos, since the permanent freeze of its first project - the Pa Mong Dam on the Mekong main stream - several hydro projects have been constructed on the Mekong tributaries, including the Theun-Hinboun and Nam Theun 2 projects. These are the major economic engines currently driving the Laotian economy. They raise the big question whether the build-own-operate-transfer schemes being pushed by the private sector are in the best long-term interest of the Lao economy. Down in Cambodia, the major issue is the potential effects of dams on the Tonle Sap River, another tributary of the Mekong, and on local production of rice and fish.
 
In southern Vietnam, the effect of upstream dams on water flows and sediment loads in the "nine-tailed dragon" section of the Mekong in this area, results in saltwater intrusion and adversely affects estuarine productivity and food cultivation in the delta. The Mekong River is like a main blood vessel for South-East Asian people, providing them with fish and rice, the two essential staples for their traditional self-sufficient diet. The annual fish production from the basin is about US$800m.
 
All recent hydro projects on both the Mekong main stream and its tributaries have had seriously impacts on the river and affect fisheries and fishing-based livelihoods of local communities. The close relationship of the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries has meant that these effects have automatically spread over the whole basin. 
 
Alternatives: Towards a Sustainable Mekong  
The Mekong's six riparian countries has been experiencing rapid economic growth and simultaneous increases in demand for economic infrastructure, including energy generation. From the 1950s to the early 1990s, people involved in the development of the Mekong region believed that demands for energy could best be met through hydropower generation.
 
But the bitter experiences arising from the severe social and environmental impacts of the hydro projects are still being felt. There have been more and more appeals for more sustainable management of the river basin.
 
Since meeting energy demands is seen as the root of past mistakes, organizations including the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) are focusing their activities on promoting alternative energy sources. One of the major challenges in the fight to protect the Mekong River and its vital ecosystems is to help the region to improve energy efficiency through demand side management (DSM) and shift to a decentralized energy pattern that relies primarily on DSM and environmentally friendly, small-scale technologies, WWF says. "We aim to promote a mixture of options for energy generation, water supply and agricultural production that will enable social and economic aspirations to be met in ways that will also maintain environmental quality", WWF Living Waters Campaign director Richard Holland explained. "This means working with the governments of the Mekong region, international bodies such as the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS), business (especially technology companies) and other NGOs", he said.
 
Robert Mather, speaking for WWF Thailand, added that one aim was to cut electricity exports to Laos. WWF will work with other partners on alternative energy programmes in Thailand. "We want to work with MRCS in Cambodia to promote a more holistic approach to sustainable development, as well as with the Asian Development Bank to influence its financial support for projects in the region", he said.
 
However, sustainable development has no clear definition in any one area, and it is open to practical definition. MRCS's chief executive Joern Kristensen said it should mean "a development process so that benefits are shared equally while harm to the environment is minimized". "Linkage between increased energy and water consumption, increased movement of goods and people, increased regional trade and increased urbanization is necessary. To try to stop this process would be like trying to stop the flow of the Mekong River," he explained.
 
But Dave Hubbel of the Bangkok-based NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA) said that real sustainable development needs deeper change in the development paradigm. The type of development project or technical aspects might not be as important as the process of decision-making for it, he said.
 
"People participation and local knowledge should be the base of any development in the region," he stressed. Most of all, he said, the paradigm change must occur at all levels and involve local people, governments and financial institutions. Robert Mather agreed with Mr Hubbel that there is a long way to go to achieve a sustainable Mekong.
 
* The author is a journalist on the staff of The Nation, a daily newspaper in Bangkok.
A man in a fishing boat on the Mekong river in Laos.
© WWF-Canon / Michèle DÉPRAZ Enlarge

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