Climate change is threatening the economic and political future of the Mekong region. Excessive dam building is accelerating these risks. Failure to act will significantly impact growth in the region.
Chinese money accounts for the overwhelming majority of investment in Cambodia’s anaemic energy sector, but while the government has been happy to take Beijing’s loans for the construction of hydroelectric plants, a study published last month found that such investment came with both ecological and economic consequences.
A cascade of hydropower dams, driven primarily by Thailand and Laos, threatens to turn this thriving, productive waterway into a fragmented, impoverished ghost of itself. And that spells trouble for the region – and beyond. As President Obama meets with Southeast Asian leaders in California, he must address the conflicts over these projects, and advocate for a solution that will ensure the health of the river and thus the region’s economic and political future.
Mekong countries’ chronic shortage of electricity which threatens to stymie economic growth, could be eased by pushing for acceleration of plans by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) for a regional power grid. However, damming the Mekong River can causes widespread controversy in South East Asia. Lower Sesan 2 dam on Mekong river in Cambodia is a typical example.
A feasibility study on a proposal to build a tunnel diverting water from the Mekong River to the drought-stricken Northeast region will be wrapped up by year-end and will determine whether the multi-billion baht project is economically viable, a senior irrigation official says.
Somkiat Prajamwong, director of the Project Management Office, Department of Royal Irrigation, said the study on the Mekong-Loei-Chi-Mun project, which will manage and divert water from the Mekong to the Chi and the Mun rivers, will also focus on the technical and engineering aspects to make sure water can be diverted to the destinations using only the principle of gravity.
When dam proponents came to her house almost three decades ago and made promises that Pak Moon dam would bring prosperity and progress to surrounding villages, Lamphai Khamlap was immediately suspicious.
Today, her concerns are being realised. The dam which was completed in 1994 on the Moon River, a tributary of the Mekong River, has had a severe impact on the livelihood of the villagers in Ubon Ratchathani.
“Hell” was the terse response of Mrs Lamphai, now 59, when asked what the Pak Moon dam meant to her. Her harsh indictment was echoed by many others.
With public opposition to major infrastructure projects a growing concern, and willing partners in neighboring countries eager to pick of the slack, Thailand’s industrialists are fanning out in all directions. Energy projects dominate the mix, including coal, gas and hydropower. As a result, it’s the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand driving much of the activity.
Facing a severe drought this year, Thailand is pumping water from the Mekong river to irrigate farms inland. It also wants to divert larger volumes, despite warnings from environmentalists about the downstream impact.
Pumping is now taking place in north-eastern Thailand, a parched region separated from Laos by the Mekong. In Nong Khai province, where a sluice gate between the Mekong and its tributary located within Thailand is now closed, temporary pumps are extracting water from the river at a rate of 15 cu m per second to water crops.
Even after losing a battle in the Thailand Administrative Court, a group of Thai villagers are not giving up. They have filed appeal after losing the first community-led lawsuit in the region to challenge a large dam on the Mekong river.
On 25 Dec 2015 the Administrative Court ruled in favour of five Thai state agencies accused of ‘illegally’ signing an agreement to buy power from the 1,200-megawatt Xayaburi dam in Laos – the first dam to be built on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong river.
The fallout from the Great Fall in financial markets, equities and currencies is ricocheting through the regional economy and beginning to exact a toll – initially among badly-run companies and poorly-managed government institutions.