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Tradeoffs Considered for Large Mekong Dams

Recent economic growth has led governments in the region to consider harnessing hydropower on the Mekong River. But as criticism mounts against many of the existing dams in the upper part of the river, two planned dams in the lower sections in particular have been singled out for concern. Experts say these two dams, including one proposed in Cambodia, could be devastating to the region’s fisheries.

A recent record-low water level in the Mekong has led to increased criticisms of mainstream Chinese dams by people dependent on the river, environmentalists and governments in the downstream countries. But this has not prevented Cambodia, Thailand and Laos from going ahead with their own plans to build 11 mainstream dams.

Richard Cronin, who is lead author of a recent report on Mekong dams by the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, said that a proposed dam in Kratie province is potentially one of the most dangerous to the fish stocks many Cambodians rely on. And it may not produce that much electricity.

“The lower you go the more damage you do, and actually the less productivity you get of electricity,” he told VOA Khmer. “Mainstream dams from Vientiane on south would all do far more damage than the value of electricity.”

Cronin said that many valuable fish swim upriver to spawn in Mekong tributaries as far as Laos during the dry season before coming down with the rainy season floods to feed and grow in the lower Mekong, the Tonle Sap lake and the Mekong Delta. His report warns that the the dam on Kratie’s Sambor river and a second in Laos would block or “threaten critical paths for 70 percent of the most commercially valuable species of wild fish.”

Inland fisheries are an important sector in the Mekong region, one of the richest inland fishing grounds in the word, and of particular importance to the Cambodian economy. An estimated 6 million Cambodians, 45 percent of population, are engaged in fishing or related fishing activities, with about 10 percent of them fishing full-time. The total annual freshwater catch in Cambodia is approximately 400,000 tons per year, worth an estimated $500 million.

Sam Nuov, deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture’s fisheries department, declined to comment on the Sambor dam or the Stimson report specifically. But he said that in general, there is clearly a trade-off between drawing power from the river and pulling fish from its waters, even for Cambodia’s rural population, where many of its farmers are also fishermen.

The Sambor dam is expected to produce 2,000 megawatts of electricity, he said. The Lao dam could generate a further 360 megawatts.

Critics do not believe this to be a good tradeoff.

“For a relatively small amount of electricity, these two governments would destroy a fishery that tens of millions of people depend on for their food and livelihoods, with no alternative sources of food or income,” Cronin said.

Ith Praing, secretary of state for the Ministry of Mines and Energy, said 2,000 megawatts is no small amount of power. It’s about four times the current national demand, he said, adding that he didn’t expect that demand to rise much in the near future.

And the Sambor dam project is moving forward. It is now undergoing a feasibility study by the China Southern Power Grid Co., for the behalf of the Cambodian government. But it remains unclear among government officials the scale of the project, the size of the dam and whether it will include a fish passage to allow migration.

Ith Praing, who is directly involved in discussions with the Chinese company, said a preliminary study was given to them more than a year ago, but nothing has happened since. Among the options in the study is a model for building a dam that also allows fish to pass through it, he said. No final decision has been made, he said, attributing the slow speed of the project to the detail-oriented nature of the government’s analysis.

Sin Niny, vice chairman of Cambodia’s National Mekong Committee, said such inevitable trade-offs must be made if Cambodia is to meet its energy needs in the future.

Sam Nuov agrees, noting that migration measures have been an important part of the decision-making process so far.

“[At our department] we want to preserve the fish in the rivers, and if mainstream [dam projects] go ahead, we should have measures to allow fish passage,” he said.

Approaches include an expensive fish lock or ladder, construction of channels for fish migration or fish spawning grounds and increased promotion of fish farming, he said. He did not say whether fish farming could replace the loss of fisheries by the dams.

Jeremy Bird, CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat in Vientiane, echoed the government’s position: that it is too early to discuss tradeoffs since policymakers are still waiting for an environmental assessment for all mainstream dams. This is expected in mid May.

But he also said the commission’s mandate is to make sure policymakers from the Lower Mekong countries are fully informed of the impacts each makes on the other, as well as alternative energy and energy-sharing options. This helps governments decide whether they want to go ahead with projects.

One dilemma for Cambodia is that other renewable energy options have not proven themselves to to have the same energy potential as hydropower. But in a 2004 World Bank assessment of development scenarios, mainstream dam projects were dismissed as too destructive of fisheries to be considered as “balanced development.”

Richard Cronin said he hopes the upcoming MRC report will be conclusively enough for Cambodia and Laos to scrap the mega-dam projects and explore other energy options—including the potential for offshore oil. Meanwhile, if even a scaled-down version of the Sambor dam was confirmed, that would be a sign of progress and awareness.

Energy is important, he said, but other countries have already wrestled with the problems of major hydropower projects, including the US.

“The big dams are a 1920s, 1930s concept of development,” he said. “There’s never been big dam projects in an area so densely populated and so dependent on a river as in the Mekong Basin.”