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Sturdy river governance key to restoring Mekong River vitality in face of dams

Billions of cubic meters of Mekong River water are now harnessed behind dams in the interests of power generation, severely affecting crucial physical and biological processes that sustain the river’s capacity to support life.As the pace of hydropower development continues to pick up across the river basin, cracks in the region’s dated and limited river

Sturdy river governance key to restoring Mekong River vitality in face of dams

  • Billions of cubic meters of Mekong River water at the moment are harnessed behind dams within the pursuits of energy technology, severely affecting essential bodily and organic processes that maintain the river’s capability to assist life.
  • Because the tempo of hydropower improvement continues to choose up throughout the river basin, cracks within the area’s dated and restricted river governance methods are more and more uncovered.
  • Main challenges embody the shortage of formal, legally binding laws that govern improvement initiatives with transboundary impacts, and a legacy of poor engagement with riverside communities who stand to lose essentially the most because of the results of dams.
  • Consultants say that open and sincere dialogue between dam builders and operators is required to revive the river’s pure seasonal circulate and make sure the river’s vitality and capability to assist biodiversity and pure sources is sustained.

That is the second article in a Mongabay sequence centered on modifications to the ecology and hydrology of the Mekong River. Learn Part One.

Niwat Roykaew, an environmental activist primarily based in Chiang Rai province in northern Thailand, described the Mekong as a naga, a legendary water serpent and image of fertility that brings abundance to the whole area.

The river, which flows throughout the borders of six nations, helps an unlimited array of ecosystems, irrigates farmlands with nutrient-laden floodwaters, transports stabilizing sediments downstream, and nourishes world-renowned fish populations that kind the idea of a lot of the area’s meals safety. The river can be an important a part of the traditions and cultural practices of the individuals who dwell alongside it. However, Niwat mentioned, a relentless procession of dam constructing has inflicted wound after wound on this historical, however struggling, life power.

“The river, as a dwelling creature, feeds the folks of the Mekong, however this naga is being slashed to items and its energy diminished,” he advised Mongabay.

As the speed of hydropower improvement within the area continues to construct in response to the worldwide drive towards decarbonization, cracks within the area’s dated and restricted river governance mechanisms have gotten ever extra obvious. The competing pursuits of six nations, paired with a mindset that usually prioritizes revenue above defending ecosystems and livelihoods downstream, has left a legacy of unilateral and piecemeal decision-making, creating huge challenges for the watercourse and all who depend upon it.

Resolution-makers now face the fact of managing a struggling river system more and more impacted by the cumulative results of successive hydropower initiatives, together with different threats similar to rampant deforestation, overfishing, and an ever-shorter wet season resulting from local weather change.

Niwat Roykaew and Pai Deetes
Niwat Roykaew and Pai Deetes talk about the Pak Beng hydropower undertaking in northern Thailand. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

“We can not chill out,” Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the Mekong River Fee Secretariat (MRC), an intergovernmental company that fosters dialogue between the 4 nations of the Mekong’s decrease basin, mentioned in a speech delivered in 2022. “Our toes ought to be on fireplace — we have to act.”

Greater than 160 hydropower dams have been constructed alongside the river and its tributaries for the reason that Nineteen Sixties. Crucially, the tempo of damming the vast and muddy mainstream river channel, residence to critically endangered freshwater dolphins and the world’s largest freshwater fish, exhibits no signal of abating.

A complete of 13 dams span the Mekong’s mainstream — 11 in China and two in Laos. Eight additional mainstream initiatives are both deliberate or underneath development in China, and nine are in various stages of planning in Laos and Cambodia, the latter largely motivated by the prospect of promoting power to regional neighbors like Malaysia and Singapore.

With billions of cubic meters of the river’s water now in storage reservoirs, key processes that shore up the functioning of the whole river system are buckling underneath stress.

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Dams sever fish migration routes and pure sediment transport pathways, and monitoring initiatives have discovered that hydropower initiatives have “inexorably” altered the river’s natural seasonal ebb and flow. The modification of this historical rhythm alongside which ecosystems and riverside communities have developed is dramatically altering the panorama and methods of life within the river basin, manifested within the type of dying ecosystems, dwindling fish catches, and riverbank erosion.

Compounding the event stress, fishing and farming communities dwelling downstream have endured failed monsoon rains and droughts in recent times which have introduced water flows to their lowest ever recorded ranges in elements of the decrease basin, decimating their livelihoods.

Ban Huai Luek in Chiang Khong province.
Ban Huai Luek in Chiang Khong province, northern Thailand the place fishers are involved about rising river ranges if the dam undertaking goes forward. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

Extra questions than solutions

With their pure useful resource base depleted 12 months after 12 months, downstream riverside communities who bear the prices of upstream dams are demanding solutions from the area’s leaders for why so many dams are required within the first place.

Growth stress is systematically undermining the integrity of the entire river system, in accordance with Niwat, the environmental activist. Awarded the Goldman Setting Prize in 2022 in recognition of his advocacy to safeguard the river from plans to channelize the Mekong by blasting away a piece of river rapids that function helpful fishing grounds, Niwat mentioned he can’t relaxation on his laurels. The identical stretch of river in Chiang Rai province is once more threatened by a dam into account in neighboring Laos.

The northernmost of the 9 megadams slated to be constructed on the mainstream river within the decrease basin, the 912-megawatt Pak Beng undertaking is located roughly 100 kilometers (60 miles) downstream of the Thailand-Laos border. The backwater from the dam is projected to have an effect on upstream river ranges, flooding important farmland and orchards. It might additionally probably have an effect on helpful fisheries species, in accordance to a technical review of the undertaking. Nonetheless, at a press briefing in October 2022, native authorities mentioned that they had no definitive data on the possible impacts of the undertaking.

On the assembly, native fisherman Chaiwat Duangpida expressed his concern in regards to the deliberate improvement, declaring that livelihoods are already undermined within the space resulting from impacts on water ranges from the cascade of dams upstream in China. “What am I going to do?” he requested. “Dwelling may be very troublesome if there’s a dam.”

Regardless of the regarding lack of know-how and insufficient environmental influence evaluation, activists say the Pak Beng undertaking is constructing momentum, with pivotal steps within the planning course of for the dam steadily continuing.

Pomelo orchards and fields of cash crops close to important Mekong tributaries.
Pomelo orchards and fields of money crops near vital Mekong tributaries just like the Ngao River could be flooded if the Pak Beng dam goes forward, activists say. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

One-way session

Riverside communities and environmental activists say they’re not being heard via the decision-making course of on the subject of hydropower initiatives, particularly these located in neighboring nations. As an alternative, they are saying they’re largely left in the dead of night, which makes it difficult to foretell how developments will have an effect on their methods of life.

Transboundary improvement choices are largely ruled through set of laws via the MRC, primarily based across the 1995 Mekong Settlement between the 4 decrease basin nations of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, with China and Myanmar as dialogue companions. Nevertheless, the foundations aren’t legally binding, and neither the MRC nor any nationwide authorities has the powers to veto any initiatives on the river, even these deemed dangerous to the river and its sources.

Attributable to these limitations, dams have sometimes been constructed on a project-by-project foundation with national-level choices taking priority. The Mekong Settlement stipulates that nations ought to notify neighbors of any mainstream initiatives, however tributary initiatives can proceed with little or no worldwide dialogue, paving the way in which for potentially devastating projects like the heavily criticized Sekong A dam, to be constructed largely with out dialogue of the environmental, social or financial penalties.

Even for mainstream dams, for which the MRC requires a six-month public session course of, communities have little alternative to meaningfully have an effect on the planning course of, mentioned Ormbun Thipsuna from the Thai Mekong Individuals’s Community from Eight Provinces, a neighborhood group that has campaigned in opposition to dams for greater than a decade.

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The Mekong School in northern Thailand.
The Mekong College in northern Thailand. Riverside communities and environmental activists say they’re not being heard within the decision-making course of for hydropower initiatives. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

“We’ve got the chance to go to session conferences with the 4 decrease basin nation representatives,” Ormbun advised Mongabay. “However the authorities representatives simply hearken to us. They can’t forestall the dams from taking place [in other countries], they simply say ‘OK, we pay attention, however we gained’t do something.’ Finally, the builders are simply eager about budgets, earnings and enterprise. They don’t take into consideration folks or the atmosphere, simply enterprise cash.”

Teerapong Pomun, director of Thailand-based nonprofit Dwelling Rivers Affiliation, agreed that public consultations don’t sufficiently bridge the hole between decision-makers and the native communities who stand to lose essentially the most resulting from dams. In consequence, he mentioned, many riverside communities are disillusioned with what they understand as a rubber-stamp process on a executed deal. And with out nationwide or worldwide laws to guard the river, communities really feel disempowered to impact actual change.

“It’s a really poor course of that by no means takes the voices of native folks and stakeholders to the decision-makers,” he mentioned. “The authorities that got here to speak [at public consultation hearings] simply got here to advertise the dams, they usually didn’t have sufficient data to reply questions … They usually didn’t invite villagers or [civil society organizations] who oppose the dams, they simply invited individuals who dwell removed from the Mekong, who gained’t be impacted a lot.”

Xayaburi dam construction.
The 1,285 MW Xayaburi dam undertaking in Laos instantly garnered skepticism from the downstream governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Picture by Worldwide Rivers through Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Mainstream dams proceed regardless of proof

The primary check of the Mekong Settlement to manipulate mainstream dam constructing got here in 2010, when the federal government of Laos introduced the 1,285 MW Xayaburi dam undertaking earlier than the Mekong River Fee. The undertaking instantly garnered skepticism from the downstream governments of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, and powerful opposition from impacted communities and environmental teams who criticized its environmental influence evaluation for failing to think about transboundary impacts.

The dearth of consensus spurred a number of rounds of technical evaluations by unbiased consultants and the MRC, the findings of which overwhelmingly really useful a moratorium on mainstream damming within the decrease basin for not less than a decade.

One 2011 research that took account of ecosystem providers and fisheries losses concluded that though Laos would derive an financial profit from its mainstream dams, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam would all undergo respective monetary web losses of $129 billion, $110 billion and $50 billion. One other study, revealed in 2017, calculated that the river’s wild seize fisheries, valued at $11 billion per 12 months, would undergo yield losses of 40-80%, leading to disproportionate impacts on rural poor households.

Varied teams, together with the MRC and UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, have subsequently discovered critical shortcomings within the social and environmental influence assessments for the slew of mainstream dams proposed for the reason that Xayaburi undertaking went into operation. Criticisms have included outdated and plagiarized sections of environmental assessments and insufficient evaluation of cultural heritage impacts.

Map of mainstream Mekong dams.

Regardless of the wealth of proof cautioning in opposition to mainstream initiatives, builders and nationwide governments proceed to put money into and drive ahead hydropower in lots of elements of the decrease basin, with Vietnamese and Thai development firms and banks concerned in lots of initiatives in Laos that may lead to downstream impacts inside their borders.

Consultants warning that further mainstream dams scheduled for development merely aren’t wanted to fulfill the area’s power wants. Thailand, as an example, has a “large” oversupply of electrical energy, in accordance with Gary Lee, Southeast Asia director at Worldwide Rivers. The Thai Ministry of Power reportedly introduced in early 2020 an power reserve margin of 40%, equal to round 18,000 MW, which is greater than the mixed capability of all 11 present and proposed mainstream dams within the decrease basin, in accordance with the Save the Mekong Coalition.

“As an alternative of constructing extra giant dams that profit the few on the expense of thousands and thousands within the Mekong, we have to prioritize extra sustainable and equitable power choices and pathways, which respect the rights of communities,” Lee advised Mongabay. “To do that, we have to hearken to the voices — and respect the rights — of people that dwell alongside the river, and who’ve been most impacted by giant dams.”

With out significant engagement and totally contemplating the opinions of affected communities, little will change, mentioned Teerapong from the Dwelling Rivers Affiliation. “Authorities ministers who’re on the Mekong River Fee Council don’t use the considerations of native communities to barter or discuss with different nations,” he mentioned. “The MRC simply does the research, however they can not make the choices.”

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Houses and businesses line the banks of dikes and rivers in the Mekong delta in Vietnam.
Homes and companies line the banks of dikes and rivers within the Mekong delta in Vietnam, weak to riverbank erosion. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

‘Quite a bit might be executed’

Ian Baird, a professor of geography on the College of Wisconsin-Madison within the U.S., has studied modifications within the Mekong’s decrease basin for a number of a long time. What’s most wanted now, he advised Mongabay, is an open and sincere dialogue between dam operators about the right way to handle present dams in such a manner that they profit the river and its folks, whereas persevering with to satisfy an actual want for energy technology.

Shifting the working schedules of large-capacity dams specifically might assist to revive a semblance of the river’s pure circulate regime, Baird mentioned. “These are elementary issues that we all know are going to have optimistic impacts — there’s quite a bit that may be executed,” he mentioned, however added that such a shift would require dam builders and operators to alter their mindsets away from revenue maximization towards a wider view that considers the well being and livelihoods of these dwelling downstream.

Such a transfer requires elevated ranges of transparency and round sharing of data between builders and native communities. This could not solely allow buyers to make better-informed choices in regards to the moral implications of the dams they’re financing, however would additionally make clear the final word objective of the dams to these affected downstream.

With China sharing extra information than ever on water ranges inside its borders via the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC), progress towards this finish is being made. Launched in 2016, the LMC seeks to cooperate with the MRC via a sequence of agreements and joint research commitments to search out out extra in regards to the hydrological and fisheries well being of the entire river.

However high-level diplomatic cooperation and technical research don’t essentially translate into significant policy-level motion that may assist riverside communities who stand to lose essentially the most resulting from dam impacts, in accordance with Carl Middleton, a political scientist at Chulalongkorn College in Thailand. There’s nonetheless an extended technique to go earlier than impacted communities are totally built-in into the decision-making course of, he mentioned.

Villagers have been resettled away from the Sekaman River in Laos
Villagers have been resettled away from the Sekaman River in Laos to make manner for a sequence of deliberate dams, away from fertile lands and potable water. Picture by T. Lee/Worldwide Rivers through Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

“Tensions can emerge [because] neighborhood actions see the river not simply as one thing to be managed for financial improvement and scientifically managed sustainability, but in addition as a part of their sociocultural practices,” Middleton advised Mongabay.

Confronted with the prevailing paucity of knowledge on deliberate dams and a scarcity of formal, legally binding mechanisms to guard the river and its sources, communities are taking issues into their very own palms via the formation of the Mekong Individuals’s Discussion board. The brand new discussion board seeks to “construct up a civil society mechanism to steadiness the facility within the Mekong,” Teerapong mentioned, and to raise neighborhood voices from the bottom up.

Given the shrinking civic space in many parts of the Mekong region, these working in Thailand, the place considerations might be raised extra brazenly than in Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam, say they really feel like they symbolize everybody in downstream dam-affected nations. “We’ve got to hold the beacon for the entire river,” mentioned Ormbun from the Thai Mekong Individuals’s Community from Eight Provinces. “We symbolize the voices of silenced communities in different nations.”

Local children watch the river flow in Pak Beng, Laos.
Native kids watch the river circulate in Pak Beng, Laos. The 912-megawatt Pak Beng undertaking is the northernmost of the 9 megadams slated to be constructed on the mainstream river within the decrease basin. Picture by Marcus Rhinelander/Worldwide Rivers through Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

Respect for the river’s intrinsic worth

Again in northern Thailand, Niwat mentioned folks working boats and tending riverside gardens should verify for updates on water ranges every day to make sure they’re not caught unawares by sudden fluctuations brought on by upstream dams.

Gazing straight throughout the river to Laos and the jetty that accommodates the boat that sails vacationers downstream to the World Heritage Web site at Luang Prabang, Niwat mentioned folks right here proceed to dwell in limbo, not realizing when or why the dams will come to alter their lives endlessly.

When the dams upstream in China got here into operation greater than a decade in the past, sandbar islands started to kind in the course of the river right here. Greater than 20 now exist, a lot of that are totally vegetated and have given rise to debate between villagers from Laos and Thailand over who has the rights to make use of them for grazing and fishing. These types of disputes will solely intensify up and down the river if the suite of deliberate mainstream dams is constructed within the decrease basin, Niwat mentioned.

Somewhat than specializing in high-level diplomacy, Niwat mentioned, river governance our bodies just like the MRC ought to be advocating a brand new imaginative and prescient for the Mekong: one which isn’t centered round hydropower, however takes full account of the truth that the river is a dwelling being. As Niwat described it, the river is a timeless, historical life power that delivers blessings to the folks of the whole area.

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When requested about what he perceives as an acceptable mechanism to carry firms and governments accountable and chargeable for damages to the river, its sources and related livelihoods, Niwat acknowledged the necessity for monetary compensation, however cautioned in opposition to solely viewing the river by way of its financial value.

“We should not lose sight of the river’s intrinsic worth,” he mentioned. “Individuals are shedding rather more than simply cash and earnings. They’re shedding a way of life, a lifestyle. What in regards to the ecological worth and different aquatic life and different ecosystem values? We’d like to consider these values too.”

For Niwat, the main target should now be on the monumental process of restoring the whole river system to its former vibrancy of life. “If we ignore the necessity to heal the river itself, then we are going to lose all the river’s pure sources endlessly.”

Banner picture: The water in Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia, is channeled from Mekong and its tributary throughout the flooding season. Picture by Carolyn Cowan/Mongabay.

Carolyn Cowan is a workers author for Mongabay. Comply with her on Twitter @CarolynCowan11

Learn Half One:

As hydropower dams quell the Mekong’s life force, what are the costs?

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