And Let the fish be Dammed

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By Irwin Loy

Planned hydropower dams along the Mekong River will have a devastating effect on inland fisheries. / Credit:Irwin Loy/IPS

PHNOM PENH, May 29, 2012 (IPS) – Khom Kieu and her family have run a bustling fish market on the outskirts of Phnom Penh for as long as she can remember. But these days, ensuring a steady supply of Cambodia’s main source of protein is harder than ever.

“There seem to be less and less fish every year,” Kieu says. “I have no idea why.”

When Cambodian fishermen can’t supply enough food for her customers, Kieu says she has to import frozen fish caught in neighbouring Vietnam and hauled up the Mekong.

The bountiful rivers throughout this South-east Asian country have allowed Cambodians to be self-reliant for generations. But concerned environmentalists envision a future where this vital food supply will no longer provide enough protein to feed the country on its own.

The Mekong system is the most productive freshwater fishery in the world. It represents a key source of animal protein for the countries along the Lower Mekong – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

No country is more dependent on this than Cambodia, where most of the nation’s protein intake comes from its inland fisheries.

Environmentalists are warning, however, that a series of hydropower dams proposed for the Lower Mekong’s mainstream river pose a grave threat to the region’s food supply. The message, they say, is particularly resonant ahead of June’s United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, known as Rio+20.

“One of the most significant threats to the sustainable development of the region is the Mekong mainstream dams,” says Ame Trandem, the South-east Asia programme director for the advocacy group International Rivers. “It would be irresponsible of the region’s governments to allow the Mekong River to be dammed.”

China has already moved on developing a cascade of dams on the Upper Mekong. The mainstream of the Lower Mekong, running south via Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, remains undeveloped for the time being.

But the Lower Mekong nations have proposed 11 hydropower projects.

The first, Laos’s Xayaburi proposal in the northern part of the countr, has proven to be a divisive issue among its neighbours.

Critics say even one dam built on the Lower Mekong could irreparably harm the region’s food supply. The dams could block the passage of migratory fish – there are more than 100 known species that must travel long distances to spawn – and environmentalists say mitigation measures proposed for the dam are unproven and probably ineffective.

Studies show dams could also block significant amounts of sediment from flowing downstream to agricultural lands reliant on the vital nutrients.

Cambodia in particular stands to lose more than 300,000 tonnes of fish production each year should all the proposed dams be built, according to a 2010 report commissioned by the Mekong River Commission, the multilateral agency the four Lower Mekong countries set up to guide development on the river. The figure is greater than the country’s entire current livestock production.

Researchers say Mekong countries would be hard pressed to replace this key food source with alternative production in resource-intensive livestock.

In a study released at a May conference on trans-boundary water management ahead of Rio+20, researcher Jamie Pittock suggests that the four Lower Mekong countries would need anywhere between 5,700 and 28,300 square kilometres of new pasture land to replace the lost protein, depending on how many of the dams – both mainstream and planned tributary projects – are actually built.

Cambodia would face the most problems in having to more than double its current pastureland, under a worst-case scenario, just to make up for the lost food source.

This will likely see Mekong countries become more dependent on importing food to meet their needs.

“Replenishing lost food security for the millions of people impacted is likely to be extremely costly and has yet to be adequately considered,” said International River’s Ame Trandem.

Mekong governments say hydropower in general is needed to fuel development throughout the region. Thailand would be the main recipient of power from the planned Xayaburi dam. However, civil society groups say Thai authorities have over-forecast their energy needs.

Thai energy analyst Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen says it is profits, not accurate demand forecasting, that is driving current projections. The U.S.-based researcher says Thailand’s current energy plan has overestimated the country’s needs by 13,200 megawatts, more than ten times the capacity of the proposed Xayaburi project.

“We don’t even need the power from Xayaburi,” Greacen says. “If the project is at least justified economically or from an energy perspective, then there’s some debate as to whether or not it’s a worthwhile tradeoff. Even if we were to need the energy I don’t think that the tradeoff is worth it. But what’s really sad is that it’s not even a tradeoff. It’s not even needed.”

For now, plans to dam the Lower Mekong’s mainstream are in a holding pattern as the four affected countries have reached an impasse on how to proceed. Cambodia and Vietnam have asked for further study before any construction is to begin. Any final decision to build, however, still rests with each country.

Laos has publicly promised to hold off until more research is complete. But critics point out that Laos has already begun constructing infrastructure around the dam area. And the Thai firm tasked with building the Xayaburi project, CH Karnchang, in April announced that it had finalised a deal to build the dam. (END)

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