Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty WorldSM
The Mekong: River Rising Or Troubled Waters?

Via The Guardian, an in-depth look at the Mekong River, where the hydro-political stakes grow as the waters flow south to richer Cambodia and Vietnam:

Troubled waters

Khamlouvilaivong Vanthong’s first job as a civil engineer was on the Nam Ngum dam. It was 1968 and as he helped cut down the dense jungles to build the vast concrete structure on a tributary of the Mekong river in Laos, he would see US B-52 bombers heading east to drop napalm, agent orange and cluster bombs on neighbouring Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos itself.

More than two million tonnes of bombs – “one tonne for every Lao citizen”, says Vanthong – fell on the impoverished, mountainous country between 1964 and 1973. But his priority was the dam and not the “American war”, as he called it.

With $28m (£18m) aid from the western powers, he and his colleagues blasted 500,000 tonnes of rock, moved 100,000 cubic metres of soil, poured 350,000 cubic metres of concrete and drowned nearly 25 sq km (10 sq miles) of tropical forest.

Vanthong loved his dam so much he never left. “We designed it to last for 1,000 years and we have achieved more than we ever thought we could. It has helped our country grow faster than we ever anticipated. Hydropower was the dream of the future then and now.”

Laos is still poor and its disastrous war with the US is barely remembered in Asia’s youngest country where 19 is the median age. Nevertheless, he understands well that the greatest threat said to be facing the country is climate change – courtesy of the emissions of the same countries whose aid money paid for the Nam Ngum dam in 1968. Instead of high explosives and chemicals raining on Lao forests as they did then, now the country must grapple with carbon dioxide emissions from the US, Britain and other industrialised countries, he said. “Nam Ngum is now more important than ever,” said dam builder Vanthong. “We want to build dams and become the world capital of clean energy – a giant battery for the whole Mekong region.”

Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam who share the lower Mekong basin are all acutely aware that they are threatened by climate change caused by others. The region has recorded more extreme weather, deeper droughts, heavier rains, bigger floods and much hotter temperatures than ever before – all consistent with UN scientists’ predictions of global warming. The four Mekong countries go to Paris for next week’s UN meeting on climate change with ambitious plans to develop with clean power.

Laos, lobbied strongly by Chinese, Thai and Korean engineering firms, wants to address climate change and is engaged in a frenzy of dam-building along the Mekong and its tributaries. In the next 15 years, it plans to build 70 or more major dams, including seven across the full width of the river.

 Screen Shot 2015-11-26 at 8.44.52 AM

Current and planned dam projects in the Mekong region

The intention is partly to reduce its own minimal greenhouse gas emissions, but mostly to generate income from selling clean electricity to its energy-hungry neighbours. Laos hopes to make billions of dollars a year from its cascade of giant dams anyway, but it could be one of the great winners from the Paris climate summit if a global carbon market develops and rich countries are allowed to offset their emissions against its clean energy.

But major hydroelectric dams can be river killers. Not only is forest and farmland usually lost, but people must be evicted, and experience shows that dams can destroy fisheries, scour riverbeds, cause more erosion, and dramatically change the amount of silt and sediment transported downstream. While trying to solve the one problem of climate change, there are real fears that hydropower on the Mekong and its tributaries could make countries more prone to the floods and droughts which climate change will bring.

Against the grain

Further south, says Vietnam’s prime minister Nguy?n T?n D?ng, the average flow of the Mekong river has been reduced by 10% in 30 years as a result of dams already built on the Mekong and its tributaries. “Never before has the Mekong river basin been confronted with so many challenges,” said D?ng.

 Lao villagers who use every inch of flat land to grow rice have already had to diversify their crops, and learn new skills, says Oxfam which is working with partner groups in central Laos. “I lost two-thirds of my crop. I tried to protect it with pesticides but I got just one tonne a hectare. We are all in the same situation. There is a pattern of extreme weather. The temperatures have definitely increased,” says Saisamone Vongkhely. “We are seeing unusual pests in the fields.”

If the scientists are right, rice yields in the Mekong region could fall up to 15-25% as the heat builds, triggering a food crisis for millions of people. With rainfall increasingly unpredictable and rice unable to grow in temperatures over 32C, rice farmers must gear up for more challenging conditions, says Chanthakhome Boualaphanh, a rice breeder and deputy director of Laos’s leading agricultural research centre, which is supported by Oxfam.

“The best way to adapt to climate change will be to develop new varieties. It does not need GM technology because we can do it with traditional breeding. We are setting up schools for farmers, and seed banks. We are going to communities. Villages are starting to use rice that can grow in flooded water, and methods like SRI [system of rice intensification] which need less water,” says Chanthakhome Boualaphanh, a rice breeder and deputy director of Laos’s leading agricultural research centre.

The biggest of Laos’ major dam building projects is the 260MW Don Sahong dam which, if built, will span a major channel of the Mekong just two kilometres from the Cambodian border. The government of Cambodia has objected strongly saying their food supplies would be endangered. Laos’ deputy prime minister Somsavat Lengsavad has responded to the fears of neighbouring countries by saying the dam will only use 15% of the Mekong’s flow.

“It is an ecological time bomb that threatens the food security of millions. The dam will have negative impacts on the entire Mekong river ecosystem all the way to the delta in Vietnam,” said Mark Goichot, a hydrologist working with WWF.

In the village of the dammed

Cambodia, which emerged in ruins from the Vietnam war and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, may be a victim of Lao’s dams, but it is itself planning to build over 40 large dams on the Mekong and its tributaries in the name of addressing climate change. All are expected to have major ecological impacts further south in Vietnam and to force large scale evictions of communities.

Kbal Romeas, a village of 132 tribal families, is preparing to be flooded when the giant $800m Lower Sesan 2 dam is completed next year. Its site, below the junction of the Srepok and and Sesan rivers, is heavily guarded and barred by the Chinese dam builders but plans showed it will block two of the Mekong’s largest tributaries creating a 3,300 sq km reservoir that would force thousands of people to move.

Kbal Romeas has barely changed in centuries. Set in deep cool forests beside the river Sesan, it can be reached only by motorbike or boat, and its people have always lived by fishing and rice farming. The annual floods have always been regular and bountiful. Its large, airy houses are raised on stilts.

Of all the 100-odd planned dams in the Mekong river basin, the Lower Sesan 2 is expected to be the most ecologically and culturally devastating because the rivers which it will harness contribute the most sediment to the giant Mekong. If this is disrupted, says a peer-reviewed study by Zim and others, it may lead to a 9.3% decline in fish biomass throughout the whole Mekong river basin.

“So many dams is too much. Cambodia is planning a complete re-engineering of the environment,” says Bunthan Phou, director of the 3S Rivers protection network which is fighting for the survival of over 100 villages which will be flooded or affected by the dam. “The electricity will go to the capital Phom Penh, but the people here will pay for it. There will be immense suffering and devastation. Everyone who lives off the three rivers will be affected. Upstream of the dam, 5,000 people will be moved in 21 villages. These tribal villages depend on the rivers. People here believe in river and forest spirits. They pray to the river to give them harvests and to catch wildlife. Their world will be ruptured. They are scared.”

Fifty families have refused to move from Kbal Romeas, rejecting the compensation offer of new homes, electricity and land. “I built this house. I don’t want or need electricity. The land I have been offered is not enough to feed my family. The government took us to see the resettlement site but it is not for us. Most people do not want to move. When the water rises we will find somewhere else to live. I don’t want anything from the company. I just want to build for myself. There is a hill nearby but the company claims it is theirs. It is our ancestral land,” said Neang Char, a young woman whose husband had left her, saying he wanted to move to a resettlement village.

With Oxfam, which is supporting communities threatened by climate change and dams, we visited one of the so-far unnamed relocation villages being built for dam-affected communities. It consisted of 130 identical blue-roofed one bedroomed, single-story houses laid out in rows beside a main road. The first families had moved in, but the health centre was not finished, the land around was mud and the developers threatened to call the police if we talked to people. The electricity was not connected.

“The roofs leak, the outdoor toilet overflows, we have no drinking water and it is not well built,” said Tous Sou, who, with fiance Ren Way, had moved there a month earlier from a condemned village. “The company promised to give us 5 hectares of land but we do not know where it is located or if it’s possible to grow anything. They said they would give us $200 for moving in early, but nothing has happened yet. Living here is very different. We were much better off before where we could fish and farm in the forest and we did not need money. How can we earn money? I get paid $2.40 a day to be a labourer, but we cannot live on that.”

Last stand of the forest

Cambodia is exchanging its dense jungles for giant agribusiness concessions granted to international companies to grow commodity crops for the world markets. In 14 years the companies have felled around 14,000 sq km to plant rubber sugar, cassava, and other plantations, says Marcus Hardtke, a former official Cambodian forestry monitor with Global Witness and co-author of a new report that shows round 2,000 sq km of the country’s forests are being lost every year.

Leng Ouch, one of Cambodia’s leading investigators of illegal forestry said: “Cambodia’s forests are being felled faster than almost anywhere else on earth. If Prey Leng falls, climate change can only worsen.” Travelling from village to village and living for months at a time in the forests, Leng documents illegal sawmills, records the activities of illegal logging companies and exposes their links with corrupt military and local government officers. “Communities are not consulted, impact surveys are not done, exclusion zones are ignored, logs are taken from outside concessions areas and permits are often fake,” he said.

Leng risks his life to expose forest crimes. In 2012 his colleague, Chut Wutty, was murdered by a military policeman after refusing to surrender photographs of illegal loggers and Leng says he has received many death threats himself. But he said that communities in and around what remains of Prey Leng have started to fight back. Using Facebook, an app and other social media, the villagers send teams of young motorbike riders out in large groups to document crimes. When they find illegal loggers they confiscate their equipment.

“We have uncovered more than 2,000 cases of forestry crime so far this year. A Chinese company grabbed our land in 2012. They took about 20,000 ha. They cut down the rosewood and other valuable trees. We complained to the authorities and the police but nothing changed. So we started a people’s movement. We patrol every week. Last month we confiscated about 250 planks of valuable wood, worth at least $20,000 and 49 chainsaws. Last year we captured two bulldozers used by loggers to get into the forest,” says Promer community leader Kuoy Lutsang. “The company can have its bulldozers back when we get our land back.”

Hardtke said: “In 14 years the companies have felled around 14,000 sq km of forest and evicted hundreds of thousands of people to plant rubber, sugar, cassava and other crops. In climate and human terms it is a disaster. Industrial farming contributes up to 30% of all climate emissions.” The German investigator’s work with international resource rights Global Witness in the 1990s exposed how the Khmer Rouge and Phnom Penh government were gutting the country’s forests to fund their military campaigns. Global Witness was made official government forestry monitors but was later expelled. “Governance of the forests in Cambodia has broken down. We will see more warming and a devastating human toll if forestry loss is not halted.”

Shrinking and sinking

The triple whammy of climate change, deforestation and hydro dams upstream puts the whole area at risk, says WWF hydrologist Mark Goichot, who has studied the delta’s vulnerability to ecological change. “If the dams are built then you can expect food security to be hit seriously. Deltas are rich and fragile. Coastal erosion is increasing, nutrients are being lost. The delta is sinking and its channels are getting deeper. Now the sea is encroaching. If the projected dams in Laos and Cambodia are built then you can expect food security to be seriously hit,” said Goichot.

Coastal communes such as Khanahok in the Cà Mau peninsula already suffer from the kind of extreme weather and coastal erosion that climate change is expected to worsen. Deep in the western Mekong delta, protected from the sea by a low concrete and timber dyke and the remains of degraded mangrove forest, Khanahok’s nine villages have been battered by cyclones occasionally but mostly by storms and high tides that regularly overtop the dyke, swamp farmland and force people to move.

In 1990, he said, 160m tonnes of silt was brought down the Mekong and reached the sea. Now only 75m tonnes gets there. “Nearly 50% of its sediment does not reach the sea any more. Vast amounts of sand are being taken for construction of cities and the silt that is used for farming is being stopped by dams. If sea levels rise by even 50cm, as predicted within 50 years, then millions of people would be forced to leave.

“Climate change will come, no doubt about it. It will hit hard, very hard. But the flow of the Mekong is already changing,” says Goichot. “The result is the delta is shrinking and sinking. If all the dams are built it will be like someone sawing off the branch on which he is sitting. The dams in laos and Cambodia will have a catastrophic effect. Never have I seen a delta move from stability to this level of stress in so short a time,” he says.

Cong Khanahoi, vice chair of the Khanahok community of nine villages and 13,000 people said: “We are seriously affected by the sea. We have higher tides than we used to. We have problems of salinity. Sea water gets over the dykes and affects fish and rice farming. Our livelihoods depend on the weather. We see clearly that the tides are getting higher. It affects people a lot. More land gets flooded now and year by year the saltwater intrusion gets worse. We used to have floods in the past but not like this. Now it’s difficult to get fresh water. People who used to live on the dyke have had to move and in some villages there is no fresh water at all.”

Mega city, mega problems

Changes in the regional climate have already been observed, says the UN environment programme assessment report on the region. “The number of hot days and nights is growing, sea level has risen 20cm in the last 50 years and by 2050, millions of its citizens will be at increased risk from regular and extreme climatic events such as floods, droughts, storm surges, and tropical storms,” it says.

Ho Chi Minh city (HCM) has been ranked as one of the 10 cities in the world most vulnerable to climate change. Parts have always flooded, but a 26cm sea level rise projected by the UN to hit by 2050 could swamp nearly 70% of the whole urban area costing its economy billions of dollars,” says the Asian Development Bank in a recent report.

More severe storms, storm surges, tidal flooding and sea level rise are expected to devastate both urban and rural areas. “If sea levels rise one metre, 20% of the delta is affected. If two metres, it is too dreadful to contemplate. Half the delta will be lost and three-quarters of the 20 million people will be severely affected,” said Le Anh Tuan from the Research Institute for climate change at Can Tho University. “20% of the world’s rice crop is grown on the delta so what happens here will have a big impact around the world,” he said.

Thuy Vu, a 21-year-old HCM city resident said: “Yes, I do worry about climate change because I think as we’ve become more educated we are more aware about how it affects other countries. We can see that it is slowly changing in a bad way, not in a healthy, good way. We already see how it affects people’s lives.”

Climate change on top of breakneck industrial development could be enough to push it over the ecological edge. The region that was ecologically devastated by war has been made especially vulnerable as countries have rushed to dam rivers, clear forests, pollute cities and overuse their natural resources. The danger signs of a warming world are clear, but are being ignored by politicians intent on economic growth at any cost. At stake are not just the food and water supplies for people already in poverty, but indigenous cultures, pristine landscapes and the health of millions of people. Any agreement at the UN climate talks in Paris to reduce global emissions and provide cash for countries such as Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam to adapt to warming will help, but it will need a complete reassessment of how people consume natural resources to avoid catastrophe.

If not, an already fragile area will destroy itself in the pursuit of production of ever more power.

This entry was posted on Thursday, November 26th, 2015 at 8:52 am and is filed under Cambodia, Laos, Mekong River, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

Comments are closed.

© 2022 Water Politics LLC.  'Water Politics', 'water. politics. life', and 'Defining the Geopolitics of a Thirsty World' are service marks of Water Politics LLC.