By Erica Gies
Mekong River, January 8, 2016
Hydroelectric dams grace bank notes in developing countries, from Mozambique to Laos, Kyrgyzstan to Sri Lanka, a place of honor reflecting their reputation as harbingers of prosperity. That esteem, now enhanced by hydropower’s presumed low-carbon profile, continues to overrule concerns about environmental consequences and displaced people, as evidenced by a surge in dam-building in the developing world.
The phenomenon is perhaps most intense in the Mekong River Basin, in Southeast Asia, where 12 more dams are planned for the main stem of the river and 78 on its tributaries. Because many of these projects seem inevitable, institutions, non-governmental organisations and academics worldwide, from the World Bank to the German Corporation for International Development to the Nature Conservancy, are developing strategies for dams with softer environmental footprints.
The Mekong is the richest inland fishery in the world, with more than 60 million people who live along it surviving on subsistence fishing. The dams would have “catastrophic impacts” on fish productivity and biodiversity, including species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin, according to a 2012 paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Sediment mobility is also a concern. Vietnam, despite its own dams, is concerned that new upstream dams would deprive its low-lying delta — the country’s rice basket and home to millions — of critical sediment replenishment in the face of sea-level increases and saltwater intrusion.
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