Dams and Food Security in the Mekong: Site Visits to the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dam Projects

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This is the first in a two-part series of Spotlights documenting Stimson Research Associate Courtney Weatherby’s travel to Mekong River basin in Southeast Asia. Weatherby along with Richard Cronin, Director of the Southeast Asia program, were given rare access to dams being built in Laos to examine their potential impact on food security in the region. 

It’s easy to read statistics about the mighty Mekong: it is Southeast Asia’s longest and largest river, rising on the Tibetan Plateau, cutting through China’s Yunnan province, and running through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia before exiting into the South China Sea through the delta in Vietnam. The Mekong’s biodiversity is second only to the Amazon, and its rich bounty provides food, nutrition, and livelihoods for approximately 60 million people who live in the river basin. The region’s major challenge is economic development, as millions of people in Laos and Cambodia still live in abject poverty with little to no access to electricity, education, or health care.

Traveling as part of a team of researchers to the region, one can see first-hand the immense changes that it is undergoing. The research trip centered around two highly controversial dam projects on the river’s mainstream—the Xayaburi dam near Luang Prabang and the Don Sahong dam in southern Laos.  Both projects have been the focal point of controversy over the Mekong’s future in recent years. Both projects were criticized for failing to satisfy the prior consultation protocol of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization comprised of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam that is responsible for managing the river.  In both cases, civil society, environmental experts, and downstream governments—especially Vietnam and Cambodia— strongly criticized a lack of opportunities to register their concerns and insufficient information given by developers.

Our first stop was the former royal capitol of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO world heritage site that sits above the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is relatively close to two of Laos’ proposed hydropower projects.  The Mekong’s role as the lifeblood of the region became immediately clear on a two-hour trip upstream of Luang Prabang to visit the Pak Ou caves, where hundreds of Buddha statues retired from temples or brought by devotees now reside. While numerous boats with tourists were on the river, most of the people we saw were farmers—we passed fields and fields of terraced gardens, built into the side of the river during the dry season in order to take advantage of the rich silt deposits.

This context framed our trip to the Xayaburi Dam, which has been controversial given its likely impacts on fisheries and obstruction of nutrient-rich sediment needed to replenish downstream soil deposits and sustain the Mekong Delta against rising sea levels. The project was approximately 40% complete during our visit. Xayaburi’s size was surprising despite all I had read about the project’s immensity. The dam itself is huge, but the main site also includes a quarry and rock-crushing site to create the vast amounts of concrete necessary for construction.

Meeting with the site engineer, we were able to get a clearer idea of the changes that have been made to the project after the serious criticism it received during the short consultation process: 4 of the 11 sluice gates have been redesigned for improved sediment flows, and sluice gates were reworked so that they could be lifted to release silt when it builds up in the reservoir. These changes do appear likely to substantially address concerns from downstream countries about obstruction of nutrient-rich sediments vital to food production in the region. Harder to evaluate, however, are the changes made to the passageway that allows fish to navigate safely through the dam. The channel was widened by 50%, designers added multiple entry slots with varying water velocities so that fish of different species could find the most compatible entrance; and they included a newly designed fish lift, which works like a navigation lock to help fish climb the passage. These changes were based on a year of research and involved extensive changes to the dam design and the powerhouse—but the challenge is that it’s not going to be clear how effective they will be until the dam is completed.

Weatherby discusses the trip below, or you can view her video here.


Follow Courtney Weatherby, Stimson’s Southeast Asia program, and Stimson on Twitter.


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