Mekong River Commission Says Dams Are Causing Sharp Shifts in Water Levels

luang-prabang-mekong-20110304-cropped Men ride in a boat across the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos, in a file photo.

The Mekong River Commission Tuesday acknowledged that climate change played a role in this year’s widely varying water levels on the Mekong, but said that dam construction was the main culprit in sharp water level increases and decreases, emphasizing a need for data-sharing between countries.

The remarks came during a conference in Vientiane to report on the six-month prior consultation process for Laos’ Luangprabang hydropower project, a formal hurdle the project has to clear before construction can begin.

The dam, when complete, would be the country’s fifth major Mekong mainstream dam. The consultation process began on October 8 and is set to conclude on April 7, 2020.

The conference was held to inform the four member countries of the MRC--Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand--as well as stakeholders about preliminary concerns the commission is investigating.

“The MRC has to exchange data, consult [with experts] to prevent serious impacts, and we have to study those impacts thoroughly,” said Anoulak Kittikhoune, the MRC’s chief strategy and partnership officer, in an interview with RFA’s Lao Service.

He discussed this year’s swings in Mekong water levels, explaining that a prolonged drought in the region followed by a flood is causing confusion as to the impact of other Mekong dams.

“The river isn’t changing according to wet and dry season patterns due to climate change,” he said.

“The rainy and dry seasons are being confused,” he added.

Anoulak Kittikhoune added that although climate change and its effects are hard to control, dam construction in the MRC countries as well as China had a much greater effect on abrupt water level changes in the river.

To decrease this impact, he suggested that the lower Mekong countries must coordinate with China to share data on dam construction and water levels on the part of the river within China, including the opening and closing of dam gates so that the countries downstream can prepare.

The MRC is currently in the process of talking with China about their concerns, members said.

Experts and officials concerned

Experts and officials from Thailand and Vietnam expressed their concerns about the Luangprabang project, calling attention to the dam’s environmental and social impacts and the commission’s duty to follow up on impact assessments.

“There has to be far less impact on the environment and local people from dam development on the Mekong,” said Somkiet Pachumvong, from Thailand’s secretariat of national water resources.

He told RFA that companies investing in the project and the Lao government should place a higher importance on the prevention of dams’ negative impacts before they occur, while calling for data to be shared with all four MRC member states.

“The Mekong is a major river. It’s going to be impossible to prevent the impact of such a huge dam project,” Chulalongkorn University’s Chaiyut Souksy told RFA.

“So it all comes down to how they prepare, how detailed their studies are and having an adequate budget to fully analyze potential impacts, so that there will be less impact,” said the former professor.

He added that because the Mekong is an international river, each country it touches must share data regularly to prepare for the future with many dams.

Nguyen Hong Phuong, the deputy director of Vietnam’s National Mekong Committee, told RFA that transparency was a major issue.

She said the MRC should deliberately make clearer the impact from dam projects.

“Actually there have been many studies to try to mitigate the impact on the Mekong region’s environment. But [the MRC] has to present [findings] more clearly,” she said.

She said that impact studies and prevention plans are only the starting point, and these need to be improved based on stakeholders’ proposals, she added.

The Luangprabang dam is expected to begin construction in 2020 and to be completed in 2027.

According to primary studies, the Luangprabang project will affect 1,077 Laotian households, or 4,600 people, in Luangprabang, Oudomxay and Xayaburi provinces.

Laos has built dozens of hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries and is preparing to build scores more dams in the years ahead.

Though the Lao government sees power generation as a way to boost the country’s economy, the projects are controversial because of their environmental impact, displacement of villagers, and questionable financial arrangements.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Manichanh Phimphachanh. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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