In the Mekong, science – not guesswork – must prevail



Posted on 30 November 2012  | 
Proposed dams on the lower Mekong River threaten unique species such as the giant catfish.
© Zeb Hogan / WWF-CanonEnlarge
WWF International Director General Jim Leape

With the livelihoods of 60 million people on the line, science – not guesswork – must prevail.

On November 7, the government of Laos held a ground-breaking ceremony to launch construction of the Xayaburi dam. If built, this massive dam would be the first dam on the lower Mekong mainstream, and could well open the way for 10 more dams currently proposed. It threatens economic development prospects and basic food security for 60 million people, 80 percent of whom depend directly on the river for their food and livelihoods.

The fish that migrate up and down the free-flowing lower Mekong are the principal source of protein for those 60 million people, and are the basis for a fishing industry with an estimated value as high as $7.6 billion annually. And the river’s natural flooding cycles feed agriculture that brings in another $4.6 billion. So the stakes are high.

The governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have acknowledged the need for additional research into the unique functioning of the lower Mekong. In December 2011, the Mekong River Commission agreed to conduct further studies on the effects of the Xayaburi dam and 10 other proposed mainstream dams. To date, no studies have been conducted, leaving significant questions unanswered about how mainstream dams will affect migratory fish populations and the flow of sediment that nourishes farmland downstream.

These are not merely questions for biologists and hydrologists. They are questions for ministers of agriculture, health and finance. They are questions for banks and donors, including Australia, the European Union and the US, which have invested an estimated $1 billion in development aid in Laos and downstream countries over the past 25 years. Economic growth gained at the expense of food security is no development victory.

The curious lack of opposition to the Xayaburi dam at the recent Asia-Europe Meeting or the East Asia Summit could be read as tacit support for the project. This would call into question European and U.S. rhetoric about sustainable development. Support, whether tacit or explicit, for a project this risky and blatantly shortsighted is incompatible with an agenda that promotes food security, economic opportunity, energy access and a stable climate.

Indeed, the Xayaburi dam is a crucial test case. Are recent discussions about the trade-offs required to achieve food, water and energy security just talk? Or are governments and investors willing to go beyond buzzwords like “nexus thinking” where it truly matters? The nations of the lower Mekong have an opportunity to turn concept into reality by taking a balanced approach to meeting food, water and energy needs, while conserving the natural resources that underpin all of these.

As a regional leader, Thailand also plays an important role. Thailand is slated to be the prime consumer of the electricity produced, and at least four Thai banks have expressed their interest in providing loans to the project, despite the acute environmental and social costs, and the uncertainties surrounding the financial return of the project. WWF calls on Thailand to act responsibly and cancel its power purchase agreement until there is regional consensus on dams.

On complex issues of conservation and poverty-reduction, “clearly right” answers are rare. This is one of the few instances when all the governments and scientists have agreed: It’s too risky to build a dam across the lower Mekong. There’s too much we don’t know, and the stakes are too high.

If the project goes ahead, the history of the lower Mekong will be divided into before and after Xayaburi. This will set the precedent, making it harder to oppose the 10 additional proposed dams. How many times must we look back in hindsight before we understand the magnitude and permanence of such decisions?

The groundbreaking ceremony at Xayaburi might make the dam seem like a fait accompli. On the contrary. There is still time to reconsider. There are options to develop hydropower along Mekong tributaries – options that research shows would have far less impact on migratory fish, and therefore food security and livelihoods. Let’s listen to the science and chart a sustainable path for development along the lower Mekong.
Proposed dams on the lower Mekong River threaten unique species such as the giant catfish.
© Zeb Hogan / WWF-Canon Enlarge
Children with a basket full of Mekong freshwater herring "pa mak pang" or Laotian shad (Tenualosa thibaudeaui), formerly one of the most abundant species, which has almost disappeared, Tonle Sap River, Cambodia.
© Zeb Hogan / WWF-Canon Enlarge

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