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Hydropower on the Mekong: a threat to livelihoods?

The Mekong River is one of the most important rivers in southeast Asia and a major source of hydro-electric power in the region. But studies warn that dams built there to generate electricity threaten many livelihoods.

The Mekong: a source of livelihood for millions

The Mekong: a source of livelihood for millions

The Mekong River is known as an important source of food and livelihood for around 70 million people in mainland Southeast Asia. The river flows through six countries: China, Myanmar, also known as Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

In order to cater to the large demand for consumption of energy within the region, four hydropower dams were built on the upper part of the Mekong in China. 11 more are being planned in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

Analysts warn

Several studies now predict that these dams - if they go ahead - will harm the environment, the local economies, food security and threaten the livelihoods of some 70 million of the region's inhabitants.

Carl Middleton, Southeast Asia Program director of the International Rivers organisation told Deutsche Welle what the main problems are: "Because the dams change the water level and the quality of the water, it has affected the fish production, and it has affected the way that people can grow vegetables on the sides of the river. So, overall it has affected the local economy."

He adds that eleven dams proposed for the lower Mekong mainstream would block the major fish migration. "About 70 percent of the Mekong River commercial fish catch is dependent on migratory fish. So, if the dams are built on the Mekong River mainstream, it means that those fish will not be able to migrate, and that would affect the food security of millions of people in the Mekong region."

Fishing as a major source of income: the Mekong in Cambodia

Fishing as a major source of income: the Mekong in Cambodia

China's role

Some also believe that the dams on the upper part of the river in China are blocking the flow of water to the lower part and causing drought downstream which in turn is threatening traditional agriculture in the lowland farms of some countries like Cambodia and Vietnam.

Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in the US describes the consequences of the hydropower dams on the upper part and on the lower part of the Mekong: "The dams in Yunnan, which is the extreme upper part, have the main effect to hold back soil and to give China the ability to regulate the river, and those are very important impacts. The dams north of Vientiane will have an impact on fish migration for spawning, and they will flood vast areas. The worst dams in term of food security, will be the dams that Laos is proposing for the lower Mekong up to the Khong falls, and then Cambodia has two dams it plans on the Mekong at Sambor and Stung Treng."

China is planning to build four more dams on the upper Mekong. Laos also plans to build around 20 more hydropower plants by 2020. However 90 percent of the Mekong's potential for hydropower is in China, while the lower part only accounts for 10 percent.

Alternative solutions

Carl Middleton suggests what should be done to deal with the problem: "I think there needs to be wider recognition of the current way the river contributes toward securing livelihoods within the Mekong region. And then also I think the alternative ways of generating electricity need to be seriously explored. There are many other options for generating electricity. Equally importantly, especially in Thailand and Vietnam, there are many options to increase energy efficiency."

Many experts worry that if all these dams are built, the Mekong River will turn into a series of lakes with the river just connecting the dams. They believe unless all the six countries discuss and solve this problem together, the region will face a serious ecological threat.

Author: Pin Manika
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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