Sustainable Development in the Mekong River Basin

Trang D. Tu, Mayo 1, 1996

The mighty Mekong, tenth largest river in the world, faces conflicting pressures for developing its floodplains and harnessing its powerful flow, which spans 4200 kilometers from the Himalayas through China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam to the South China Sea. Turbulence characterizes the river’s upper portions, but the lower Mekong is more placid, and annual flooding supports a biologically diverse ecosystem. Agriculture is the primary economic activity along the river, complemented by fish production, transportation and electricity generation.

Hydropower development has long been a critical issue for the people, planners and government officials of the Mekong’s riparian countries, but the approach has changed over time. In a 1957 plan, the US Army Corps of Engineers proposed a cascade of seven large-scale dam projects that would create 23,300 megawatts of power and curb perceived flooding problems. The Indochina War halted implementation of this plan. Today, development planning has shifted from structural flood control to a regional approach based on participation and resource-sharing among countries.

Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed an Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin in April 1995. It provides that signatories shall “cooperate in all fields of sustainable development, utilization, management and conservation of the waters and related resources of the Mekong River Basin, including but not limited to irrigation, hydropower, navigation, flood control . . . and to minimize the harmful effects that might result.” These include inundation of large areas of agricultural lands and displacement of established populations, causing additional economic and cultural losses to this already endangered region.

In 1994, the four countries commissioned a study to determine the viability of Mekong hydropower development if it was deliberately constrained to minimize such impacts. Recognizing the negative effects of large reservoir-dependent dams, the study focused on a “run-of-river” dam structure that uses daily natural water flows rather than a reservoir to regulate the river. The study categorized nine sites (See map) according to social and environmental impacts, as well as by economic performance.

Conflicting Pressures on Land and Water Resources

The rationale for hydropower stems from Asia’s rapidly growing energy demand, which is doubling every 12 years. Yet, each country has its own unique concerns. Laos, for example, has enormous export capacity since it contains 80 percent of the Mekong’s potential hydropower energy, and its small population consumes only a fraction of this potential. Thailand, in contrast, has 8.5 million hectares of arable land but a limited water supply. It needs electricity for its rapid industrialization and could import energy to boost development of its poor northeastern region. Cambodia has witnessed an 80 percent reduction in irrigated land in the last 20 years due to war. It seeks to develop domestic energy capacities and to export hydropower in the long run. Vietnam is most concerned about the impacts of its upstream neighbors’ actions on the river’s flow through its land on the way to the sea.

Proponents of hydropower assert its comparative advantages over other energy sources, but opponents are concerned about the implications of the Mekong River Commission’s alleged pro-dam policies. When the Mekong Agreement was signed, for example, Thai nongovernmental organizations agreed with the concept of cooperation, but strongly opposed the influence of the dam-building industry. Along with other environmentalists, the Thai NGOs feared that the Agreement equated “development” of the Mekong with dam building and elimination of natural floodplains.

The International Rivers Network voiced concerns about the recommendations of the 1994 Run-of-River Study, in particular the impact on local populations. The nine proposed run-of-river projects would displace an estimated 61,200 people and increase land pressures in resettlement areas. Agriculture would be affected if the dams reduced or eliminated the nutrient-rich silts deposited by floodwaters, and the remaining floodplain soils would be threatened by salinization if reservoirs caused underground salt deposits to dissolve and leach to the surface. The fishing industry that supports many local economies would also be affected by blocked fish migration routes, loss of nutrient movements downstream, inundation of spawning areas and turbine mortality.

Recognizing Risks and Developing Alternative Plans

The river basin countries recognize the risks posed by hydropower development, but seem to be caught between two difficult positions. Cambodia, for example, acknowledges downstream impacts of dam construction, yet it still senses the urgent need to develop its hydropower potential. The fact that 85 percent of its own population depends on subsistence farming and the river as a source of protein and transportation does not make its choice any easier.

The US, with its long history of large-scale dam building, offers a number of lessons. Daniel Beard, former commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, highlighted these in his address at the Mekong River Conference held in Washington, DC, in November 1995. First, large-scale developmental and operating costs cannot be repaid through user charges alone. Other effects have manifested themselves in soil salinization, elimination of fisheries, reduction of wetlands, and agricultural degradation. Now the government must determine how to solve and pay for these problems that were caused in part by top-down planning and lack of accountability to local officials and the public.

The need for open decision making is critical to finding convergence between proponents and opponents of power projects, wherever they arise. Jon Kusler, of the Institute for Wetland Science and Public Policy, emphasizes the need for stakeholder involvement. Suraphol Sudara, of the Siam Environmental Club, believes that the Mekong River Commission could “play a more useful role if it looked to managing the river rather than building big projects.” He would include consideration of non-structural alternatives and a broader definition of “river system development” that recognizes the economic and cultural value of the floodplains.

Yasunobu Matoba, newly appointed CEO of the Mekong River Commission’s Secretariat, acknowledges, “In developing and using water resources, priority has to be given to the satisfaction of basic needs and the safeguarding of ecosystems.” It remains to be seen whether stated policy is ultimately implemented in the region’s development plans.

Trang D. Tu is an editorial/research assistant at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, and is completing her master’s degree in urban planning at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. In November 1995 she attended the Mekong River Technical Workshop on Sustainable Development in Washington, DC.

For Reference

Mekong Mainstream Run-of-River Hydropower: Executive Summary. December 1994. Prepared by Compagnie Nationale du Rhone, Lyon, France, in cooperation with Acres International Limited, Calgary, Canada, and the Mekong Secretariat Study Team, Bangkok, Thailand.