A short discussion on the hydropower dam system on the Mekong River mainstream and its impacts to Mekong delta
By Dao Trong Tu. Ph. D
1. Why are China’s massive cascade of hydropower dams in Yunnan and proposed mainstream dams in Laos and Cambodia particularly a threat to the Mekong Delta? What, if any, benefit does Vietnam get out of these projects?
Vietnam has many reasons to be concerned about the impacts of China’s massive cascade of dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan province and with the dams proposed on the Lower Mekong Basin’s mainstream in Laos, Cambodia, and on the Thai-Lao border. These impacts pose a serious threat to the Mekong Delta, home to nearly 18 million people and the source of half of Vietnam’s national rice production. Our country’s location as the most downstream Mekong state means that all efforts to develop the Mekong’s water resources will impact the Delta. These impacts may be positive or negative, but according to many studies conducted so far by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the consultant Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), most impacts are anticipated to be negative, including:
- Significant changes of flow pattern to the Mekong Delta that will cause difficulties for agricultural production and livelihoods.
- Dams in China and in the lower mainstream (with total reservoir storage capacity of about 40 billion m3) will trap a big portion of the Mekong’s sediment that the river should naturally transport to the Delta. The fertility of the Delta, vital for rice cultivation, will suffer and productivity will decline. As in the experiences from Mississippi river in America and Chao Praya in Thailand, the Delta, which is already vulnerable to sea water intrusion, is likely to sink further (for example).
- All of the massive dams in Yunnan, China and the 12 dams proposed for the Lower Mekong mainstream are engineered for the sole purpose of energy generation. Most of the dams in China and all of 12 dams in mainstream of Lower Mekong basin are “run-of-river dams”, but they are designed for daily regulation to meet changing power demand, mainly during the dry season. This poses a risk to downstream water levels (especially) during the dry season and gives way to salinity intrusion in the Mekong delta.
- All hydropower dams in China are operated by the Chinese government or Chinese private investors, meanwhile the construction of 12 hydropower dams proposed for the mainstream in the Lower Basin will be financed, built, and operated (for concession periods ranging from 25 to 30 years after construction is completed) by companies from at least 5 different countries: Thailand (4 dams), China (3-4 dams), Vietnam (1-2 dams), Malaysia (1 dam), and France (2 dams). A common agreement among and between these owners and governments for the coordinated operation of these reservoirs remains a fantasy. This is particularly worrisome for citizens and governments alike of downstream nations such as Vietnam.
- The distant, but real possibility of a catastrophic dam failure, whether due to human error or natural factors (disasters) like earthquakes, is of great concern not only to Vietnam but to all countries potentially affected by dams on the Mekong River.
- All dams constructed (in Yunnan) and those existing and proposed to be constructed in Laos, Laos-Thailand, and Cambodia directly benefit the investors and the countries owning the projects, while many of the most severe negative impacts will fall on the Mekong Delta – so this winner-loser outcome cannot be supported by Vietnam or other downstream countries whose losses from upstream development will outweigh any benefits.
2. Are the dams relevant to climate change and if so in what ways?
Climate change forecasts predict more rain in the flood season and less during the dry seasons – it means that the flow of Mekong River will be changed for the worse – as discussed above, the dams in the upper and lower Mekong basin will have far more negative impacts on downstream communities in terms of the flow regime. I think that the standards for design of Xayaburi and other projects already constructed or only proposed do not yet take into account these predicted climate changes. This increases the level of risk associated with mainstream dams. Additionally, the Mekong delta of Vietnam is also expected to suffer greatly as a result of global sea level rise, so the delta is vulnerable to the “double impacts” of both upstream dam development and global climate change.
3. About the contested Xayaboury dam project involving Laos and Thailand, why is one dam so far up the river a threat to the Delta?
At different levels, any single dam or series of dams on the river (mainstream and tributaries) can result in negative impacts to downstream communities and the Delta. Xayaburi – a big dam located on mainstream in Lower Mekong basin – is a run-of-river dam, but still has a storage capacity of 220 million m3. Some of this capacity will be used for daily regulation during the dry season, leading to serious impacts to downstream ecology and natural hydrology. Another aspect is that the construction of Xayaburi will be followed by the construction of another 11 dams on the Mekong mainstream. The cumulative downstream impacts of Xayaburi and the 11 other dams have not yet been adequately studied.
4. What is/should be the role of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and what needs to be done to strengthen it?
So far the MRC is only an advisory body that cannot alone impose or enforce any binding agreements on plans to develop the water resources of the Mekong basin. The MRC does however conduct important and valuable scientific and strategic studies to inform and guide member governments’ decisions. To strengthen the MRC, I would make three recommendations:
- Preserving the MRC’s current structure while infusing the MRC’s Council with greater executive power so that they can be more involved and even make some important development decisions for the basin as whole. In this case, the basic Agreement on Cooperation for Sustainable Development of Mekong Basin (also known as the 1995 Mekong Agreement) can be amended or not, but the specific statute governing the role of the MRC should be amended;
- The MRC Council should be upgraded to the level of vice Prime Minister. In this case the 1995 Mekong Agreement must be amended, granting the Council more decision-making power over important development projects that impact the river system; and,
- The MRC should become an inter-governmental committee for sustainable development of Mekong basin, headed by Prime Ministers of each member country. This committee will have the full power to decide on all proposals for Mekong river projects. They should be guided by the principles of mutual benefits for all member countries with the goal of win-win outcomes that avoid any future conflict over water usage in the basin. Given the water development and climate change challenges confronting the region, the strengthening of mechanisms for cooperation among the Mekong countries (firstly among Lower Mekong countries and then with China) is absolutely vital for the future of food and human security, and in particular the sustainable and stable socio-economic development of the Lower Mekong Basin.
5. How can donor countries, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank help?
The donor community, the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, with their experiences in sustainable development in the region and around in the world can also have important role to help the Mekong countries to find best solution for the problems of development of big hydropower projects planned for the Mekong mainstream in Lao PDR, Lao-Thailand and Cambodia. Their roles can be:
- to assist MRC countries to carry out the deep studies on impacts of Lower Mekong dams on mainstream to the environmental and socio-economic interests of all countries;
- to help in finding solutions for sustainable development of mainstream of Mekong river for mutual benefit of all people and countries in the area to avoid water conflicts in future; and,
- to provide financial assistance to support riparian countries in the Lower Mekong Basin to aid with mutually beneficial strategic solutions for sustainable socioeconomic development in the region while adhering to strict ecological requirements.
6. How can/should China be brought into the picture?
China should recognize the rights of MRC countries under the framework of a “shared Mekong”. Although China has yet to join the MRC, China ought to cooperate with MRC countries to facilitate studies and transparency regarding all activities relating to water development on the Mekong mainstream. Meteorological and hydrological data in the upper part of Mekong (Lancang) in China are very important inputs for planning downstream project. The impacts of big hydropower projects in Yunnan, China are equally important and should be studied as well. These studies should be a cooperative ventures between China and the MRC countries. Political good-will from China concerning the Mekong will go a long way towards fostering trust between China and Greater Mekong Subregion countries. I firmly believe that this will not only benefit MRC countries but will be equally beneficial to China as well. China’s participation in current and future sustainable development strategies concerning the Mekong is beneficial to all parties and all sides should engage in dialogue.
7. What would be the ideal kind of regional cooperation “architecture” for sustainable development and what would be the first steps towards basin-wide water management?
The following steps would foster regional cooperation for sustainable development:
- Give the MRC more executive power for decision making.
- Gradually upgrade the capacity and role of the MRC as proposed in question 4 with strong support from the donor community including the WB and ADB.
- Establish a framework for negotiations with China and Myanmar with the ultimate goal of full MRC membership for China and Myanmar.