The Laos government is pressing ahead with a new dam on the Lower Mekong River, leading scientists and activists to warn of growing threats to regional food security.
Laos informed the four-nation inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) earlier this month that preparatory work was under way on the 912-megawatt Pak Beng Dam in the northern province of Oudomxay.
Pak Beng would be the third dam on the lower Mekong mainstream under Lao control. The $3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam and the Don Sahong Dam near the border with Cambodia are part of 11 dams planned on the Lower Mekong river system.
Laos says construction of the dams is key to its long-term economic development, promoting the country as a “battery” of Asia, although regional sales of hydroelectricity are largely destined for neighboring Thailand.
Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at non-government group International Rivers, says construction of the Pak Beng Dam increases the risk of damaging a critical river ecosystem that feeds 60 million people in the region.
“[The dam] will have significant impacts on the lower stretches of the river as the northernmost project on the cascade. It will have particular impacts on blocking sediment flows, but also impacts on fisheries. And our concerns are also around additional projects going ahead,” Harris told VOA.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) says the fisheries alone are worth an estimated $17 billion a year. “All economic activity in the region is directly or indirectly linked to the river and therefore vulnerable to changes to the river,” WWF said in a recent report.
On the upper reaches of the 4,300-kilometer Mekong River, China has built half a dozen dams with increasing concerns over the impact on vital nutrient-rich sediment flows downstream.
Robert Mather, a consultant and former Southeast Asia director for the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), says China plans to carry out major river navigation changes above the Lao township of Luang Prabang to allow for navigation of vessels of 500 deadweight tons (DWT).
The work would include destruction of dozens of rapids, rocks and shoals as well as dredging and construction of new ports at the same time the Pak Beng Dam construction is expected to be under way on the same stretch of river.
“It just illustrates the fact even at the level of these big projects there’s no coordination going on between them. And it’s just different agencies pushing their own agenda,” Mather told VOA.
Studies have predicted regional rice production falling due to the planned dams in Laos, trapping sediments, reducing nutrients and fish stocks by disrupting migratory breeding.
The people of the region are among the poorest in Southeast Asia - their lives dependent on fresh fish for food security.
Chris Barlow, a fisheries expert with the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) says once the dams are in place, the impact on fish stocks will be immediate.
“As soon as these mainstream dams are built in Laos, they will start to have an immediate impact on fisheries recruitment and therefore the size of fish populations,” Barlow said.
He warned the situation was leading to a regional food crisis.
“The time of government’s responding is over. It’s over in terms of maintaining the fisheries stocks - the only response is what else you do to try and replace that food supply,” Barlow added.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has come under criticism over its handling of debates over the river's planned extensive dam building.
MRC chief executive Pham Tuan Phan, in comments, said the commission’s role was a "platform" for cooperation, not a regulatory body. “The MRC is imperfect but it’s indispensable,” Phan told local media.
Activists say the MRC lacks influence over individual members, undermining its authority.
Robert Edis, ACIAR research program manager on soil and crop nutrition, says water flow reaching major agriculture producing regions, such as the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, would be hard hit.
“If the tap was turned off there would be insufficient water to grow non-rice crops in many areas,” Edis said.
“And there’s a lot of people who depend on that and there’s a lot of people for whom the buffer between adequacy and inadequacy is very small. So we’re not talking about people on abundant incomes or abundant food reserves,” he said.
International Rivers has called on the MRC to delay the consultation process for the Pak Beng Dam and suspend all construction activities to ensure transparency and public consultations.