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Damming the Mekong

26 October 2010 2 Comments
Dominic Geiger | The Wire

Plans to build nine dams along the Mekong in Laos will have both environmental and social implications. Image: Themiz

Plans to build nine dams on the main stretch of the Mekong river in Laos has outraged environmentalists and humanitarian groups.

According to the Laos government, the plans are designed to lift many people out of poverty by selling off hydroelectricity to the country’s energy hungry neighbours; Thailand and Vietnam.

“Mekong is a fantastic river. It has an amazing diversity. It is one of the most prolific rivers in the world for fish with more than 1000 species,” says Marc Goichot, senior adviser on sustainable infrastructure at the World Wildlife Fund.

Goichot says the benefits the Mekong fishstocks bring to the people of the region is unequal elsewhere in the world.

“It produces some, brings in $7 billion within a year and produces more than $3 billion tonnes of fish a year.


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“[The proposed dam] would affect the fisheries because it will breach the connectivity and affect the fisheries and the people along the Mekong depend on the fisheries.”

Professor Stuart Bunn, Director of the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University agrees with Goichot and says that the proposed dams will radically change the way of life for people living on the Mekong.

“The Mekong is one of the last of the relatively unscathed large rivers and that’s largely due to the fact that it hasn’t had a large number of dams put on it. Building the dams and particularly the ones that are talked about are likely to have a big environmental and social impact down stream.”

“On the river itself, there is not going to be, I don’t think too much in the sense of displacement of people. These are not dams that are designed to backflow them and move people out.

“I think the most significant environmental issue for communities is the potential damage to natural fisheries downstream and that, the social impacts of that, in terms of removing a major source of protein for communities down stream is probably the most significant effect.

The World wildlife Fund has predicted that species of fish including the Mekong catfish are likely to become extinct if the proposed dams are built. A prediction Bunn agrees with.

“Yes… the Mekong has an unusually high fish species diversity. It’s something like 1300 species of fish are already described and many of the ones in the river migrate large distances up… And there are other more charismatic ones, like the giant Mekong catfish which, you know, they are under a pressure already from fishing and these are ones that simply won’t be able to navigate their way through a series of barrages and dams.”

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  • Josh

    Thanks for this story. Very important exposure of this issue and great to have work on this site from Laos.

  • Michael

    In my personal view only, the plans for any dams on major rivers in the world, such as the Mekong, should be carefully studied and considered according to internationally accepted best practices which safeguard the environment, have reasonable economic returns, including those for the local people. Great care should be taken to protect the world’s precious natural resources including the triibutaries of the major river systems and downstream effects. As an ASEAN diplomat remarked some years ago at a meeting I attended at a country along the Mekong River, “the fish in the Mekong River have no nationality, they belong to the world”.