By Pratch Rujivanarom
Chiang Khong, Thailand, November 14, 2016
DEVELOPMENT projects in the lower reaches of the Mekong River will take a great toll on the area’s biodiversity, experts have warned, with much of its fauna and flora facing imminent extinction.
In the face of major projects, such as the plan for a navigation route on the Mekong from Chiang Rai province down to Luang Prabang in Laos, as well as a controversial dam, concerned academics and experts attended the Greater Mekong Forum in Bangkok on Friday.
The group discussed the potential impact of development projects as part of the Lancang-Mekong Environmental Study, which led by International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM).
The navigation route from Chiang Saen to Luang Prabang was proposed as part of the Lancang-Mekong Development Plan and Pak Beng Dam recently forwarded to the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Experts warned that these developments would permanently change the river, endanger its ecosystems and harm the livelihoods of people living along the river.
Robert Mather, an independent consultant on biodiversity and former chief of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Southeast Asia Group, said that development projects along the Mekong may already have had an impact on endemic and endangered animal and plant species.
“My firsthand account of the threat to endemic species of the Mekong River happened in my own backyard at Chiang Khan District in Loei.” Mather said. “The local river embankment project destroyed the only known habitat of newly discovered plant Cryptocoryne loeiensis, which is only found on the banks of the Mekong,” Mather said.
“This is only the impact from the small embankment project. We have still not fully studied and understood the biology and biodiversity of the Mekong River, but it is about to be damaged by these development projects.”
He said there were at least 200 species of fish along the 300-kilometre stretch of the study area and many of these were crucially important for the local people and preserving the region’s biodiversity.
MRC senior aquatic ecology expert Chavalit Vidthayanon told the forum that there were currently three near-extinct fish species in that area of the river – the Mekong giant catfish, Chaopraya giant catfish and golden brook carp. Rare Mekong stingrays and giant freshwater stingrays were also found in the area, he said.
“These development projects never calculate the value of ecological benefits but only consider the economic profit,” Chavalit said.
ICEM director Jeremy Carew-Reid said the plans to make the Mekong navigable by large cargo ships included the removal of 146 rapids, rocky outcrops and shoals. The Pak Beng and Luang Prabang dams would create large reservoirs extending at least 70km upriver.
“This navigation development plan together with the proposed Pak Beng Dam will affect the river and the people who rely on it so much,” he said.
The navigation route development plan was initiated as the Chinese-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism with the aim of increasing trade and passenger transport via the river from China’s Yunnan province to Luang Prabang.
The Lao government notified the MRC about its intention to construct the Pak Beng Dam last week, pending a consultation process. However, there were reports that construction of the dam had already begun.
Simon Tilleard, ICEM water resources engineer, said during his presentation that the proposed development projects would severely harm the river’s ecosystem, with the “explosion” of rapids altering the riverbank and sediment being trapped and accumulating inside the reservoirs.
Eric Baran of the World Fish Centre said this build-up of sediment would seriously alter the habitat of large fish species as well as small aquatic animals and amphibians.
Photo credit: Pianporn Deetes