Mekong dam proposal goes under the microscope



Posted on 24 September 2010  | 
The Mekong giant catfish is part of a historical Lao and Thai fishery. Local culture considers the animal a "spirit fish" that, if caught, can bestow good luck on the fishermen. The fish meat can also sold for top prices. The Mekong giant catfish has faced over a decade of unsustainable fishing pressure and is now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
© Suthep Kritsanavarin / WWF LaosEnlarge
WWF is seriously concerned about the negative impacts posed by the Sayabouly hydropower dam proposed for the Mekong river in northern Laos, following the Lao Government’s notification of the dam to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on September 22.

The Lao Government’s engagement with the MRC on the Sayabouly dam is a positive first step in the three-stage assessment process. The Sayabouly dam is the first of the 11 proposed lower Mekong river mainstream dams to be critically assessed by member countries of the MRC.

“There must be a rigorous and transparent assessment of the impacts of this dam,” said Marc Goichot, Sustainable Infrastructure Senior Advisor for WWF Greater Mekong. “It is already very clear this dam would amplify and accelerate the negative impacts of Chinese dams to the Mekong delta, what are the other impacts?” he said.

If built, the Sayabouly dam will block the sediment and nutrients that build the delta and feed its immense productivity, which provides more than 50 percent of Vietnam’s staple food crops. Moreover, the dam would alter habitats downstream in Laos and Cambodia potentially having devastating impacts on wild fisheries and causing the likely extinction of critically endangered Mekong giant catfish.

A workshop organized by the MRC Secretariat concluded that with current technologies it would be impossible to build a dam that would allow for such a large and diverse fish migration as takes place in the Mekong river.

The third MRC Basin Development plan grossly underestimated the negative impacts on biodiversity and sediment flows of lower Mekong river mainstream dams proposed north of Vientiane, including Sayabouly. The Basin Development plan will guide the MRC assessment of all lower Mekong river mainstream dams.

WWF supports a ten-year delay in the approval of lower Mekong river mainstream dams to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all the impacts of their construction and operation. Immediate electricity demands can be met by fast tracking the most sustainable hydropower sites on the lower Mekong’s tributaries.

“This dam is the greatest challenge the MRC has faced since it was formed. It is the most serious test of its usefulness and relevance,” said Mr Goichot.

The CH. Karnchang Public Company Ltd. of Thailand has been contracted by the Lao Government to construct the Sayabouly dam if it is approved. Karnchang has hired Swiss company Colenco to produce the design of the Sayabouly dam. WWF has tried to engage with both parties to highlight the risk and promote sustainable alternatives. Neither party has elected to engage with WWF on the matter.

To promote sustainable hydropower development, on September 24 in Bangkok, WWF and other development partners convened a conference of leading Asian, US and European financial institutions to highlight the financial, social and environmental risks and responsibilities of hydropower development on the lower Mekong river.

The meeting also explored ways to avoid, manage and mitigate these risks supporting the conclusions of the MRC Summit held in Hua Hin on April 5 that was attended by all governments of the Mekong and endorsed sustainable development of the Mekong river basin.

The Mekong giant catfish is part of a historical Lao and Thai fishery. Local culture considers the animal a "spirit fish" that, if caught, can bestow good luck on the fishermen. The fish meat can also sold for top prices. The Mekong giant catfish has faced over a decade of unsustainable fishing pressure and is now listed as critically endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
© Suthep Kritsanavarin / WWF Laos Enlarge

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