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Another Mekong dam threatens catastrophe

Laos government's plan to build its largest dam sparks new fears over environmental damage

UCA News reporter, Vientiane

UCA News reporter, Vientiane

Published: July 03, 2020 04:56 AM GMT

Updated: July 03, 2020 05:05 AM GMT

Another Mekong dam threatens catastrophe

A man sits in a fishing boat while traveling along the Mekong River in Nong Khai province in Thailand. Concern is growing among environmentalists over plans by Laos to build a new dam on the river. (Photo: AFP)

The government of Laos has shrugged off concerns voiced by environmentalists and is pressing ahead with the construction of yet another large hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River.

Laos completed two dams on the Mekong last year, including the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi Dam, a controversial project on the lower Mekong that has been slammed by environmentalists.

The small communist nation’s leaders have now signaled their eagerness to proceed with the construction of yet another dam, a 1,400-megawatt construction in Luang Prabang province. It will be the country’s largest dam on the beleaguered river.

The impoverished nation’s government sees hydropower as a key part of economic development by seeking to export around 20,000 megawatts of electricity by 2030 to its wealthier neighbors China and Thailand.

Yet Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have all raised concerns about the planned new dam, with their governments calling for a six-month consultation process to evaluate its environmental impacts.

Hydroelectric dams constructed by China and Laos in recent years have irreversibly changed the flow of the iconic river downstream, triggering the prospects of an environmental catastrophe.

Millions of farmers and fishermen depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods. The continued construction of dams is likely to deal a blow to their traditional ways of life along the river that makes its way from China to Vietnam via four other nations, experts have warned.

Last year the river’s water level dropped to historic lows and its color changed from its normal brown to light blue as the amount of ecologically vital sediments diminished in the water. 

Yet the Lao and Chinese governments have dismissed environmental concerns, attributing changes in the water’s flow, level and color to droughts.

Environmentalists say that Laos has been building its dams without proper consultation. 

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“[There has not been] meaningful debate about impacts or problems that may arise from these hydropower projects,” said Pianporn Deetes, a Thai environmentalist who works for non-profit organization International Rivers. “So the questions raised by people, NGOs and governments have never received a proper reply.”

Save the Mekong, a coalition of NGOs and experts, has called for Laos’ latest dam project to be scrapped altogether, saying its environmental harm would far outweigh its economic benefits in the Lower Mekong Basin. 

“Now is the time to cancel the Mekong mainstream dams permanently and prioritize sustainable and equitable energy options and pathways that respect the rights of communities,” the group said last month.

The worst-affected victims of rampant dam construction by Laos and China, which has built several large dams upriver and is planning several more, are economically disadvantaged communities, including ethnic minorities, along the 4,350-kilometer river, which originates in the Tibetan highlands.

As the reservoirs of the myriad dams upriver hoard river water upstream, farming and fishing communities downstream experience increasingly severe water shortages, especially during the dry season and prolonged droughts. Climate change is exacerbating the problem.

“Thailand and other countries in the region are bracing for serious water shortages over the next several months, while Vietnam faces the greatest threat in the coming years as lower water levels and sediment flow in the Mekong combine with rising sea levels and salination that will devastate its vast, agriculturally rich Mekong River delta,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a US think tank, explains in a report.   

Some 100 million people rely directly on the Mekong in six nations. Yet in the past decade alone an estimated 1.7 million people have left the Mekong Delta in Vietnam largely as a result of increased poverty and diminishing economic prospects owing to a changing environment.

In addition, experts warn, the storied biodiversity of the Mekong is also at grave risk, with many of the river’s more than 850 fish species facing increased threats.

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