Sacrificing the Mekong River Basin in the Name of Electricity

ImageThe Mekong river is considered the lifeblood of southeast Asia. It starts out on the Qingzang plateau in Tibet, a place known as ‘roof of the world’, and makes its way through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before pouring itself into the China Sea.

Along this path, carved out over millennia, the Mekong has ensured the health and security of countless people, providing them with food, water for crops, and a means of trade and transportation. Today the Mekong supports as many as 100 million people. However, the onset of Hydro development, which began in the early 1990s, threatens to drastically change that.

In effect, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body of Mekong countries, wants to turn the Mekong river basin into an international sacrifice zone, where abundance and food security will be replaced with increasing poverty, food shortages and the heavy loss of diversity.

It’s strange, but the MRC says this is all necessary and that they have no choice but to exploit the natural resource power of the Mekong river, because of the never-ending need for more electricity in Southeast Asia‘s urban centers.  And so, they are attempting to build dozens, possibly hundreds of dams along the river and its tributaries.


The Mekong River at sunset

At the same time the MRC insists that it supports sustainable development, that it cares deeply about the Mekong basin and, as stated in their mandate, that they will make every effort “To promote and coordinate sustainable management of water and related resources for the countries’ mutual benefit and the people’s well-being” in a manner that is “consistent with the needs to protect, preserve, enhance and manage the environmental and aquatic conditions and maintenance of the ecological balance exceptional to this river basin.”

It certainly sounds like something local, riparian communities and environmental groups can support. However, the reality of the MRC is a far cry from this glowing image of social and environmental heroism.

In fact, it’s often suggested that the MRC must be replaced because out of either fear or inability or just plain old greed, it has created “a vacuum of accountability” that allows developers move forward with their hydro projects “unchallenged,” with little regard to their effect on the Mekong basin or its inhabitants, without even so much as an environmental assessment.

Results and Consequences

Next to the Amazon, the Mekong River is the world’s most bio-diverse inland waterways. It is home to as many as 1,250 species of fish, including the giant catfish and the world’s few remaining freshwater dolphins.

Each year, between June and December, the Mekong grows to about thirty times its low season size, replenishing the water table and triggering a mass migration of fish to their breeding and feeding grounds in Cambodia‘s Tonlé Sap Lake.

"As the floodwaters recede, the fishermen of the region work together constructing what are, in effect, long bamboo fences around the lake to trap the migrating fish. The fences stretch for some 1,500 km, using 3 million stakes or more. Huge quantities of fish are caught – around 30 tons an hour in one single fishery. Although this is not industrial fishing in the accepted sense, it is artesian fishing on a massive scale and a truly impressive sight," describes the New Agriculturist.

Historically, the communities would get about 80% of their nutritional needs from this annual effort.

Today, such a prospect is impossible. "It is now estimated that the total fish catch from the Lower Mekong Basin is two million tons per year," the New Agriculturist adds.

More than that, communities say the dominant species have begun to mature at a much younger age, which means, on top of the steep decline in population, the fish are now smaller and less valuable.  Some communities say they now have to fish ‘night and day’ – even for weeks on end, to meet the same yield that they would historically gather with ease. Others have been simply forced to abandon their livelihood altogether.

Communities rely on farming to meet the rest of their subsistence needs. However, this too is being threatened by the dams. "The dams’ reservoirs retain a lot of nutrient-rich sediment that would otherwise be spread by [the] annual floods to the lower Mekong," says Nguyen Tan, an agriculture expert at Can Tho’s Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Vietnam.

This is causing soil throughout the basin to become less fertile, which, on top of affecting the health of the ecosystem, is leaving farmers with no choice but to rely on poisonous chemical fertilizers.

Displacement is another major concern. To date, hydro development has primarily taken place on the upper end of the Mekong, where there are at least three dams in operation, and as many as 280 more in various stages of planning and development. 

It is unclear how many people have been displaced by the upper Mekong dams, however, there is an increasing push to get started on the lower Mekong, particularly where it runs through Laos, which threatens to displace more than 75,000 people, and "condemn millions [more] to serious food shortages and increased poverty," says Chris Lang, an environment researcher based in Frankfurt.

Jeremy Bird, the executive director of the MRC, claims there will be "…tremendous efforts… targeted towards first of all avoiding those impacts."

It’s almost comical, given that Bird says any such effort should not involve those who would be affected the most, the riparian communities. 

Bird’s opinion was brought to life in September 2008, when “the MRC organized a meeting in Vientiane to discuss the proposals to dam the lower Mekong,” Lang points out. “None of the millions of people who will be affected… were invited to the meeting." Bird explained to a journalist from Inter Press Service that he did not see that as a problem on the grounds that the meeting was held in English and "in an environment that the communities are not familiar with."

Drowning the Future

In an industry that drowns in hypocrisy, much like the forest regions and livelihoods it destroys, Mr. Bird’s statements should come as no surprise. The MRC, while presenting itself as a champion of sustainable development, has and will continue to facilitate the destruction of the Mekong river basin, threatening along with it the livelihoods and cultures of millions of people.

After all the name of the game here is power, not the kind we need for light bulbs and cell phone chargers, but that all-corrupting power where, be it through the clench of a fist, the muzzle of a gun, or through scratches on some eco-friendly paper, one can decide the future of countless others.

This desperate situation begs the need for the riparian communities to come together and confront the MRC, the state governments, and the corporations that will force them to bear the full burden of hydro development while benefiting from it the least.


You can find more articles by John Schertow at his blog,

Photo of dam from

Map from

Mekong River photo from Wikipedia