In the 1970s, when an average of two or three new dams were being commissioned daily
around the world, western engineers set out to tame the Mekong River. They envisioned
a series of gleaming dams, strung like pearls, to control the flood waters and generate
An irrigation canal in Cambodia. In the 1970s western engineers planned to irrigate a million hectares by damming the Mekong.
They drew up blueprints for the lower river basin that would result in more than
a dozen large dams capable of generating 25,000 megawatts (MW) of electricity and
irrigating one million hectares.
But those projects languished as war ravaged the region. And those looking to resurrect
them have found that the 21st century is more averse to the grandiose dreams of previous
A landmark report issued three years ago by the World Commission on Dams (WCD), an
international panel of governmental, corporate and NGO interests, states that although
dams have made "an important and significant contribution to human development
... in too many cases an unacceptable and often unnecessary price has been paid to
secure those benefits."
The WCD report estimates that between 40 and 80 million people lost their homes to
the construction of about 45,000 large dams since 1950. It also found that efforts
to mitigate the impact of dams on terrestrial ecosystems and biodiversity were often
"The poor ... and future generations are likely to bear a disproportionate share
of the social and environmental costs of large dam projects without gaining a commensurate
share of the economic benefits," the report concludes.
As a result the WCD issued a new set of guidelines stressing "equity, efficiency,
participatory decision-making, sustainability and accountability" to guide government
Environmental advocates say these recommendations have been rejected by some countries
seeking to tap the hydroelectric potential of their rivers.
"The problem with the WCD [guidelines] is that China, India and Turkey, the
biggest dam builders in the world, don't recognize the document," says Marc
Goichot, the coordinator of the World Wildlife Fund's Living Mekong Initiative. "In
China, we're trying to do something about it, but we're just getting started."
China, which contains the upper portion of the Mekong, is the country all the players
in the region are watching. Beijing has launched an unprecedented effort to transform
its southern Yunnan province into a hydroelectric power hub.
The scheme, which observers say will produce 15,550 MW when completed in 20 to 30
years, involves a cascade of seven or eight dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong,
known as the Lancang. It accounts for 20 percent of the Mekong's volume by the time
it empties into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam.
Upstream in Cambodia, where a far larger percentage of the Mekong's volume comes
from China, the Lancang's contribution is a critical factor in the annual flood levels
that sustain the region's fisheries.
Two of the dams on the mainstream of the Lancang have already been built. Work started
on another, the 292-meter high Xiaowan Dam, last year. When completed in 2013, it
will be the tallest dam in the world and will generate an estimated 4,200 MW.
But the effects it will have on downstream countries are expected long before then.
A 2001 report by the Stockholm Environment Institute stated that the cascade of dams
would wreak havoc on traditional livelihoods, water flow and natural ecosystems throughout
Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Seasonal flooded forests could become permanently
inundated, and the fertile silt that nourishes the fields downstream will remain
trapped far upstream.
Research conducted by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute concurred that
China's hydropower and dredging projects on the Mekong could transform a relatively
pristine waterway into a "biologically degraded, badly polluted, dying river,"
jeopardizing the livelihoods of more than 73 million people now living in the Mekong
Downstream countries have spoken out about their concerns, but critics say that a
lack of political clout with China has muted any response.
And even as these weaker countries struggle to contain their domineering upstream
neighbor, they have hatched hydroelectric projects of their own.
Oxfam America reports that the four nations that comprise the Mekong River Commission
(MRC) - Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia - are gearing up to dam a significant
number of tributaries of the Mekong.
"More than 80 potential dam sites have been identified on Mekong river tributaries,"
states the NGO's report, Hydropower Development in the Mekong. "Since the region
began to open up again in the late 1980s after decades of war and isolation ... these
plans have been dusted off and begun to be implemented in earnest."
At the moment, no dams ex-ist on the main stream of the Lower Mekong, which runs
from Laos to Vietnam. Any proposed dam must win the approval of member states in
the MRC before it can be built, so it is unlikely one will be built in the near future,
says Joern Kristensen, CEO of the MRC Secretariat, the river planning agency's administrative
and technical arm.
But, he says, the tributaries of the Mekong can be diverted or dammed at the discretion
of national governments.
"I think in the future we will see dams being constructed on some of the tributaries,"
he says, adding that only prior notification or consultation needs to be offered
to countries affected by the projects.
The primary issue for the Mekong region, Kristensen says, is not to halt the expansion
of industry and agriculture, but "to work out a best possible scenario for balanced
development". Since this pressure will only increase as the population in the
river basin grows beyond 90 million by 2025, Kristensen advocates managing, not reversing,
"In this context, not to develop is not an option," he says. "The
purpose for the [MRC] is to create a win-win situation: one country gets something,
but the other countries get some benefits, so there will be no losers.
"The four countries ... [have] increasingly demonstrated over the last four
years that they fully understand that if one country would lose, the others would
lose as well."
Environmental organizations say Cambodia has consistently found itself on the losing
end of hydroelectric projects. The $1 billion dollar Yali Falls Dam project on the
Se San River in Vietnam has proven to be a disaster for downstream communities in
Though dam construction began in 1993, two years before Cambodia entered the MRC,
it quickly altered the local ecology, killing livestock and severely damaging fisheries
in Ratanakkiri province, says environmental NGO the International Rivers Network
The NGO says many villagers have seen their crops, livelihoods and in some cases
their neighbors washed away by waters from floodgates located just 70 kilometers
above the Cambodian border. That is despite Hanoi's promises of better notification
of water releases.
The next project on the river, the 270 MW Se San 3, is now under construction 20
kilometers downstream of the first dam. It was approved by Vietnam in November 2001
along with three other hydroelectric projects planned for the same stretch of river.
Cambodia has pressed for more consultation with Vietnam about such projects, but
so far its plans have not changed.
"We could not oppose the building of the [Se San 3] dam," says Pich Dun,
deputy secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee (CNMC), the national
delegation to the MRC. "We have suggested to Vietnam that maybe they should
inform [us of] any further proposed development."
Dun says that Hanoi has agreed to provide warnings of dam releases, as well as updates
on the status of new works. The establishment of a committee to exchange information
makes him optimistic.
"I think this will be better than before," says Dun. "When they were
constructing the first Yali Falls Dam there was no mechanism to share information;
now the mechanism is already established."
Communication between Cambodia and its neigh-bors may be the only lifeline for downstream
communities here as more dams spring up in response to regional energy demands.
The country has its own projects planned too, says Tun Lean, director of the Department
of Energy Development at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy (MIME).
"Because we have the resource, we should develop hydroelectricity," he
says. "We have more than 45 sites to develop [hydroelectric power], but right
now we only have two [dams]."
Lean believes the government's ambitious plan will transform the country from an
energy-starved nation into a major electricity exporter by 2015. Central to the effort,
known as the Cambodia Power Sector Strategy, is abundant, cheap hydroelectricity.
The hydroelectric sites now producing electricity barely register on the national
energy grid. The two small projects, located in Ratanakkiri and Kirirom, contribute
about 13 MW to a national generating capacity of 120 MW from Electricité du
Cambodge, and nearly twice that from private generators.
Lean points to a 1970s study carried out by the MRC that showed at least 10,000 MW
are waiting to be harnessed in the country's rivers. The MRC has drastically revised
its plans to account for social and environmental costs, resulting in the ditching
of many proposed projects. However Lean says he does not see environmental or resettlement
obstacles, just the flooding of forests.
While none of the projects proposes blocking the mainstream of the Mekong River,
several include 'run of the river' provisions that will divert large amounts of the
flow into hydroelectric generators.
One such project, the Kamchay dam on a tributary of the Mekong in Kampot province,
has already been approved by the Ministry of Environment and is expected to be operational
in 2008. Other projects would block some tributaries.
In an attempt to coordinate these development proposals, the MRC has started compiling
a Basin Management Plan of each member country's new ideas for hydroelectric and
water diversion projects.
Kristensen says the initial list of proposals, including environmental and social
impact assessments, will be discussed at regional meetings of the MRC, with a completed
draft ready in two years.
"The final outcome of that discussion would be a short list of projects that
have been agreed to by all four countries that we think is feasible," he says.
"It's obvious that will become a political process. And in any political process,
there will be compromises and tradeoffs."
There are already signs that some projects may be scrapped, at least temporarily.
Two projects here have been halted due to a lack of donor support, says the Culture
and Environment Preservation Association (CEPA), an NGO.
Last March, for instance, the Canadian government's development arm CIDA withdrew
its backing for a feasibility study of the Kamchay Dam, the proposed $220 million
project in Kampot Province. Tep Bunnarith, the director of CEPA, says the project
is now "waiting for a donor".
Another dam proposal now in doubt is the Prek Thnot dam in Kampong Speu. Described
in MIME's Power Sector Strategy Report as a "small, easily accessible"
site, it fell by the wayside after funding by a Japanese aid agency evaporated due
to concerns about its impact on downstream communities.
Pich Dun at the CNMC says donors and consultants are not interested in many of the
hydroelectric proposals. However the country is determined to find sponsors to carry
out some projects and ultimately build several hydropower plants of its own.
"We suggested to the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to [conduct] a feasibility
study, and if economical, if feasible, [they] can lend us the money," Dun says.
But he admits Cambodia's profound dependence on fisheries makes finding an economic
justification for such a project daunting.
Others are more optimistic funding will be found - just not from the multilateral
lenders. Tun Lean at the Department of Energy Development says the government is
instead looking to the private sector.
"We expect we will request private participation because the government does
not have enough money to develop hydropower," Lean explains.
That, combined with the general reluctance of international financial institutions
to get involved, has convinced the government to embrace a hydropower development
strategy called BOOT: Build-Own-Operate-Transfer.
In BOOT projects, international lending institutions such as the ADB encourage foreign
investment by offering loan guarantees or financial incentives. Private companies
then carry out feasibility studies for the project, provide the capital for construction,
and operate the facility for an agreed period of time, generally 15 or 30 years.
At the end of that time, ownership of the facility reverts back to the government
and, presumably, the revenues flow into the national treasury.
Proponents have lauded this as a way to jump-start development without draining government
resources. But environmental advocates such as Oxfam America warn the method is untested,
and say the real winners will be the companies "able to make substantial profits
by selling their construction and consultancy services ... while having little stake
in whether the project ever actually makes a profit or earns any revenue for the
host government and people".
Despite the controversy, the Department of Energy Development is relying on BOOT
projects to carry out much of its ASEAN vision for at least ten dams by 2020 (see
box). Together the dams will generate 830 MW of power at a cost of $1.8 billion.
But community development and environmental NGOs like Oxfam America, WWF and CEPA
are skeptical that these proposed dams, often built under the rubric of poverty alleviation,
will actually benefit those they are intended to help.
What would help, they say, is for the government to officially adopt the recommendations
contained in the WCD report.
"If the government is so keen on building dams, then they should follow the
WCD recommendations," says Malena Karlson of CEPA, referring to the extensive
impact assessments suggested by the document. "They will find that some dams
are not feasible. I hope a government thinks that [building dams] is good for the
country, not for putting money in their own pockets."