The Mekong River feeds millions of people in South East Asia; it provides fish to eat and nutrients for agricultural land. Alarmingly, millions of peoples’ livelihoods are currently threatened by 11 planned dams in the lower Mekong River.
Proposed and planned dams will cause significant damage to rivers, fisheries, and agriculture, reducing food supply and displacing millions of people. ERI works with affected communities and local community groups to ensure that governments and corporations are meeting local and international standards, such as meaningfully engaging with communities, conducting thorough Environmental Impact Assessments that consider impacts across borders, and respecting communities’ rights to life, food, and livelihoods.
There are over 50,000 large dams in rivers around the world. Upstream from each of them is a floodplain or reservoir, where the bottlenecked river pours across the surrounding lands. Depending on the size of the dam, that area can be massive. The World Commission on Dams estimates that 40 to 80 million people worldwide have been displaced by hydroelectric dams.
Communities that depend on rivers for fishing and also agriculture suffer the consequences. Fish population declines and lands become less productive as nutrient rich sediment delivered by the river disappear. In regions of the world where vast numbers of people depend on these methods as their sole source of food and income, dams can have widespread negative impacts on food security and local economies.
The mainstem of the Lower Mekong River, which flows through Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, currently has no dams, while the Upper Mekong (Lancang) River in China already has seven. There are also already numerous tributary dams, with many more planned. As a result of these projects, communities face forced evictions from their homelands and the rivers, forests, soil, fish and plants with which their lives and identities are deeply entangled. Construction of the planned dams is likely to spell ecological disaster, threatening the livelihoods and integrity of the communities who depend on these resources.
In 2010, a Strategic Environmental Assessment commissioned by the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission recommended a 10-year moratorium on dam construction on the Mekong so that further study could be conducted.
The Xayaburi Dam in Laos is the first of eleven planned hydropower projects on the still-undammed Lower Mekong River mainstream. The dam is expected to impede fish migration, harming fishing communities Laos as well as neighboring Cambodia and Thailand, and will likely hasten the extinction of species found only in the Mekong, such as the critical endangered Mekong giant catfish.
The dam will also likely block the flow of nutrient-rich sediment to Vietnam’s ecologically fragile Mekong Delta, which supports a thriving rice farming industry and offshore fishery.
Almost all the electricity produced by the dam is planned to go to Thailand, according to a 2011 Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) signed by the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and approved by Thai government agencies. Without the PPA, the Xayaburi Dam is not economically viable, yet independent studies have found that EGAT has grossly overestimated the amount of electricity Thailand needs, and that it has not studied potentially cheaper or more environmentally sustainable electricity generating options. EGAT itself even recently publicly acknowledged that it does not need the electricity generated by the project. EGAT has not conducted an environmental impact assessment (EIA) in Thailand for the Xayaburi Dam, nor has it conducted adequate public consultations.
ERI has challenged the participation of Austrian engineering giant Andritz AG, which is supplying key operating technology for the Xayaburi project. On April 19, 2014, ERI and other civil society groups filed a complaint against Andritz under the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, arguing that Andritz’s involvement violates international standards on ethical corporate conduct. The complaint asks Andritz, which supplies key operating technology, to conduct impact assessments, work with the project developer and the Government of Laos to prevent and mitigate impacts, adopt policies to prevent harm in future projects, and help to provide an effective remedy for populations affected by the Dam.
ERI has also supported a lawsuit filed in the Thai Administrative Court challenging the PPA and EGAT’s failure to consider environmental impacts in Thailand. The lawsuit, filed by the Community Resource Centre on behalf of Thai communities in August 2012, was initially dismissed by the court but reinstated by the Supreme Administrative Court in a landmark victory in June 2014. On October 15, 2014, the communities filed for an injunction to suspend the PPA.
Don Sahong (Laos)
The Malaysian company Mega First Corporation Berhad (Mega First) is in the process of building the Don Sahong Dam on the Mekong River in Lao PDR, less than two kilometers upstream from the border with Cambodia. The dam will entirely block the main channel of the Mekong River that provides year-round fish passage through the Khone Falls area.
Fish are the essential source of protein for most Mekong communities – communities that already live precariously. For example, in Stung Treng province, an area of Cambodia where Don Sahong will have a severe impact, 45% of children are already malnourished.
Mega First has not given communities any information on how – or whether – it intends to address concerns about fish populations. Whether mitigation is even possible, Mega First has offered little data to demonstrate that their proposed mitigation measures will work. This creates an unacceptable risk to fish populations, which are the basis of the lives and livelihoods of upstream and downstream Mekong communities.
On October 20, 2014, a coalition of local, regional and international NGOs, filed a complaint with SUHAKAM, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, requesting investigation of the economic and social impacts of project. The complaint also asks SUHAKAM to ensure that the Malaysian project developer, Mega First, complies with international human rights standards, including the obligation to meaningfully engage with and inform affected communities.
Lower Sesan 2 (Cambodia)
Preliminary construction is underway on the Lower Sesan 2 Dam (LS2) on the Sesan River, one of the Mekong’s main tributaries in Cambodia. The dam is being developed by a group of Chinese, Cambodian and Vietnamese companies, and will block both the Sesan and Srepok rivers, two major tributaries of the Mekong, and flood a vast area.
Scientific studies have predicted disastrous consequences if the LS2 dam is built. Around 5000 people will have to resettle, many of them members of indigenous and minority ethnic groups, including the Phnong, Kavet, Pov and Lao. A 2009 study commissioned by the Rivers Coalition of Cambodia (RCC) found that, as a result of the LS2 dam, approximately 80,000 people in the Sesan and Srepok basins will lose a large portion of their fish catch. Almost 10% of fish will disappear across the entire Mekong Basin due to lost access to breeding grounds, and significant changes to water and sediment flows will damage the productivity of riverbank farming.
On October 16, 2014, ERI joined a group of 17 civil society organizations from Cambodia and the Mekong region in issuing a statement demanding that the project developers and the Cambodian Government conduct a new Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and release information on the alleged redesign of the dam. The action supports recent community statements in which affected villagers refused to relocate and demanded opportunities for communities to participate in decision-making on the project.
The statement follows on from letters sent in May 2014, by ERI together with a group of 15 civil society organizations (CSOs) and lawyers from Cambodia and the region, to the Chinese government and the corporate stakeholders developing the Lower Sesan 2 Hydropower Dam in Stung Treng Province, Cambodia. The letters warned of the severe environmental and social impacts of the project and called for greater accountability by all stakeholders.