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Dams threaten “millions of Mekong livelihoods”

A fisherman plying his trade on the waters of the Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia. The lake is Cambodia’s largest and provides income to tens of thousands of families but the traditional fishing industry here is under threat from climate stresses and commercia David Gough/IRIN
A fisherman plying his trade on the waters of the Tonle Sap lake, Cambodia.
For thousands of years, the Mekong River has nourished civilizations and housed one of the world’s most diverse populations of fish and plants.

Yet 17 dams recently built on the Mekong and its tributaries in China, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam, as well as 11 more in the planning process, are threatening Mekong fisheries – and thereby the food security they have provided for millions, critics warn.

“People affected could number in the millions, due to the extensive changes expected to the river’s ecosystem downstream,” Aviva Imhof, campaigns director of International Rivers, an NGO based in California, told IRIN.

Most alarming, NGOs say, is a cascade of eight dams being built in the Upper Mekong in China, the origin of Southeast Asia’s largest river, which could alter the ecosystem downstream for Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

Of the eight dams in China, four have been completed. NGOs claim they are already undermining fish populations and causing erosion in downstream Myanmar, northern Thailand and northern Laos.

The dams are allegedly blocking Mekong fish from travelling upstream to spawn, threatening fisheries.

Map showing the flow of the Mekong river
A map showing the route of the Mekong River

Between 60 and 65 million people live in the Mekong River basin and are overwhelmingly dependent on fisheries.

About 80 percent of their protein intake comes from fish, with an estimated value of about US$2.5-$3 billion a year, the Bangkok-based NGO Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), reports. They eat more than 1.5 million tonnes of fish per year, according to conservative Mekong River Commission (MRC) estimates.

The MRC, an inter-governmental body of Mekong countries based in Vientiane, Laos, says the basin provides a wide variety of breeding habitats for more than 1,300 species of fish, while the annual rise and fall of the river ensures a nutrient-rich environment on which the fish can feed.

Aside from the fishermen, thousands more earn their livelihoods making and selling food products and fishing gear and repairing boats, according to the MRC.


“Local people will became the victims of this [the dams], and will not necessarily receive any benefits,” Premrudee Daoroung, co-director of TERRA, told IRIN.

In China, two resettled communities have not received adequate compensation, and seen lower fish catches, as well as an increased incidence in disease, according to International Rivers.

“There has been no investigation into this, nor any attempt to document the downstream impacts by the Chinese government or other regional governments,” Imhof said.

In landlocked Laos, one of the region’s poorest and least developed nations, a series of relatively small dams and diversions has already led to the forced relocation of thousands of indigenous peoples.

The controversial Nam Theun 2 Dam project, which will flood more than 600 sqkm, will displace at least 7,000 when completed, and affect many more, according to Minority Rights International.

Thousands make a living by rice cultivation, and many more live in floating villages on the Mekong River and Tonle Sap
Photo: Tharum Bun/IRIN
More than 60 million people live in the Mekong water basin
Pushing for development

Chinese companies have long been building dams to develop the Yunnan province in the southwest, a mountainous frontier known for its vast rivers and natural resources.

Dams provide the renewable electricity needed to support China’s rapid economic growth, and reduce its dependence on coal plants. Governments downstream claim the hydroelectric dams will cut electricity costs.

The World Bank has estimated that Cambodia, for example, has some of the highest electricity costs in the world.

To increase the supply of electricity for all Southeast Asia, Laos is planning at least 30 dams on Mekong River tributaries or smaller streams that branch off from the main river.

“Laos knows that Thailand will be the biggest buyer of their electricity and this will benefit the country economically,” Daoroung told IRIN. “Thai people, at the same time, have been told by the government… that the country plans to buy very cheap electricity from Laos.”

But despite the negative impacts, supporters say the dams could help local communities, who face annual floods and droughts due to extreme fluctuations in rain levels.

“Dry season water levels could increase, making water available for irrigation and urban water supply,” Damian Kean, a spokesman for the MRC in Vientiane, Laos, told IRIN by e-mail.

“China has also clearly stated it will operate the upstream projects so that river flows downstream are maintained at acceptable levels,” he added.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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