The construction of hydro-powered dams on the Mekong River in South-East Asia could jeopardise livelihoods, water access and food security for 60 million people, across Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, warned the authors of a study by World Wildlife Fund International (WWF) and Australian National University, Canberra. The study was presented
At the Third Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy, in November 2012, in Hanoi, Vietnam, WWF International presented a study on the impact of the projected hydro-power dams on the Mekong River in South-East Asia. The authors of the study warn that dams will block fish migration routes and decimate fish supplies in the lower Mekong region. “As fish dwindle, communities will have to look for alternative sources of protein, such as livestock and poultry. Raising these will require more land and water, and be prohibitively expensive”, said Stuart Orr of WWF International and co-author of the study. "People talk about food security in relation to dams but we need to put the numbers to what that really means."
The study was published in the October issue of Global Environmental Change. Orr says that if all 88 planned dams were developed, Mekong communities would be faced with sourcing close to 40 percent of lost fish protein from other sources. And to replace fish protein with domestic livestock protein would require up to 63 percent more pasture lands and up to 17 percent more water, the study says.
The Mekong is one of Asia's longest rivers, running from its source in China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. It is home to more than 850 freshwater fish species, a livelihood source for some 60 million people living in the river's environs.
The study comes amid ongoing debate over the environmental and social implications of construction of the Xayaburi Dam on the Lower Mekong in Laos. The US$3.5 billion funded dam is expected to be completed by 2019, and will export 95 percent of its electricity to Thailand, which is funding its construction. While there are four dams in the Upper Mekong basin in China, Xayaburi is the first of 11 planned dam projects on the main stem (downstream river segment), and there are plans to construct another 77 dams in the basin by 2030.
Orr acknowledges that countries in the Mekong area need hydropower to drive growth. However, he also suggests that policymakers in the region should consider food security losses and how this will squeeze natural resources. Given this scenario, the WWF has urged the Lower Mekong countries to delay a decision on dams in the area for ten years — enough time to gather and analyse critical data. It also advises them to prioritise dams on tributaries that will have lower impacts and risks.