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Hydropower dams threaten livelihoods of Cambodia's poor

December 9, 2010

As plans to build hydropower dams on the Mekong River gather pace, there are warnings that their construction could damage fish stocks, on which millions of Cambodia’s most vulnerable people rely for protein.

Cambodia depends on fishing for much of its daily protein
Cambodia depends on fishing for much of its daily proteinImage: AP

On Thursday, Laos officially inaugurated its latest hydropower dam on a tributary of the Mekong, one of the world’s longest rivers.

The Mekong rises in the Tibetan Plateau and runs almost 5,000 kilometres through six countries – including Laos and Cambodia – before it meets the sea in Vietnam.

Need for more energy

Countries like Laos and Cambodia need electricity for their own purposes and to export to their energy-hungry neighbors. The Mekong and its tributaries offer a logical solution – why not dam the river, and push the water through turbines to generate power?

It is a question that has grown more urgent in recent years. In another five years, there will be 47 dams on the tributaries of the Mekong. Around a dozen more are planned for the mainstream.

But campaigners say blocking the Mekong will severely damage fish migration, and cripple fish catches. That is important because millions in the region rely on this free resource for nutrition and food security. Freshwater fish provide up to 80 percent of the protein eaten by Cambodians, and at least one-third of fish in this river are migratory species.

Hazards of development

A recent projection highlighted the risks if a proposed 11 dams are built on the mainstream of the Mekong River – two of them in Cambodia. That would add to 77 dams that are already built or planned for tributaries of the Mekong over the next two decades.

A Cambodian boy stretches to hoist his makeshift fishing net out of the Mekong River
A Cambodian boy stretches to hoist his makeshift fishing net out of the Mekong RiverImage: AP

Dr Eric Baran is the senior research scientist at the Phnom Penh office of WorldFish, an international research body. He believes that the consequences of this construction in terms of fish production would be a loss, and this loss is due to the impact on the migratory fish. "We calculated that the loss of fish by 2030, if the 11 mainstream dams are built, would amount to between 600,000 tons and 900,000 tons every year. We’re talking about a gigantic number that could have a huge impact on food security in the region, in particular in Cambodia and Laos."

Cambodia would lose over 200,000 tons of fish – more than half its annual catch. Millions of Cambodians live on the cusp of poverty and rely on the bounty of the river to survive.

The Mekong River Commission – or MRC – is an intergovernmental body set up 15 years ago by Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam to promote cooperation over the river. China and Myanmar are also involved in the MRC.

A recent report from the MRC recommended that any decisions on whether to build dams on the mainstream Mekong be deferred for a decade, since building them would be irreversible, and their impact would be substantial.

It warned Cambodia would likely suffer more than any other country from the proposed dams. The next step is for the politicians to sit down and work out a way forward.

Earlier this week Cambodia’s agriculture and fisheries minister admitted that damming the Mekong could interrupt fish migrations.

Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Thomas Baerthlein