Photo: Prince Roy
Mekong Delta Blues
Vietnam lies at the wrong end of the Mekong when it comes to food and water security. In Vietnam, where the river makes the final run to the sea, the Mekong splits into a number of branches, known in Vietnam as the Mouths of the Dragon. There used to be nine mouths, but perhaps seven mouths remaining these days. Sited in the middle of one Dragon-mouth near Mytho is small, lush Phoenix Island, the abandoned headquarters of the cult of the Coconut Monk. They called him crazy for his visions of Peace, Love—and his steady diet of coconuts. In his prime, in the 1970s, the Coconut Monk had over 3,000 followers in the Mekong Delta, and was imprisoned for his outrageous campaigning for reunification of north and south Vietnam. Today, Phoenix Island is a tourist attraction, where visitors dangle lumps of meat on fishing lines for captive crocodiles to snap at—and indulge in other wacky pursuits.
The Coconut Monk at least had a vision—of Peace, Love, Unity and Happiness. Where is Vietnam’s vision for the future of the Mekong? Where are the visions of the other downstream nations for the Mekong? Will the Mekong become mythical, like the Phoenix? Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, hosting a population of over 18 million, is vital to food security of the nation, producing the bulk of its rice, and responsible for a considerable percent of its fishing industry. Today, with the wild fish catch dwindling fast, attention has turned to aquaculture, or fish-farming, with large holding pens under floating houses in places like Chau Doc. The common fish bred in these operations is tilapia, which is commonly fish-farmed in China. Tilapia is a low-grade fish—it is one of the worst, most toxic and unhealthy fish varieties you can come across. Not even close in comparison to the wild catch. Vietnam’s rice crops are in big trouble. Rice is very water-intensive. Recent years have seen poor harvests in the Mekong Delta, with a huge drought in early 2016. Another major problem is on the horizon: salt-water intrusion. Rice can only take so much salt and then it will give up the ghost. A bandaid-solution would be to bring in GM salt-resistant rice, which is under trial in Bangladesh. But that is a poor solution. The real problem is the reduced flow of the Mekong, most likely due to China’s megadams in Yunnan, the pulse of the river is becoming weaker. And the sea-levels are slowly rising, which means when the two meet—the river and the sea—the sea is intruding further inland.
The last great bastion against sea-level rise and salt-water intrusion is the mangroves that carpet the southern coast of Vietnam. The mangroves were decimated by aerial spraying of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War—an ecocidal endeavour initiated by the USA. Now another form of ecocide is slowly under way—death by damming. Mangroves are miraculous plants that store carbon underwater, and which neutralize extreme weather events like cyclones and tidal surges. But mangrove roots rely on the building block of silt. The roots trap silt, which also nourishes the plant. With silt not forthcoming because it is blocked by dams, mangroves are in trouble. Mangroves are the most salt-resistant of all plants, able to survive in very salty conditions. But even mangroves have their salt limits.
Source of Crisis: Tibet
Way upstream, up the other end of the Mekong, sits a dam you have most likely never heard of. It is called Guoduo Dam. Chinese-built dams like Guoduo are game-changers for the Mekong, with serious impact on the downstream regions. Like a host of other dams under construction in Tibet, Guoduo flies under the radar. In 2014, with little fanfare, the dam started operating on a Mekong tributary to the northeast of Chamdo. By Chinese standards, Guoduo is a small dam, at only 165 megawatts in capacity. But the location of the dam is significant. Guoduo is sited at an elevation of over 3,400 metres—an altitude that has stymied Chinese engineers because of special construction problems associated with freezing winters. Customized concrete must be used in the building of dams at high altitude, among other hurdles. If you know nothing about Guoduo Dam, you have something in common with Tibetans—they have likely never heard of the dam either. Dam construction in remote parts of Tibet is shrouded in secrecy, it seems, to dodge potential campaigns by Tibetan and Chinese protesters. Tibetan protesters have died when protesting construction of a megadam: others have been arrested, put away for long prison terms on trumped-up charges—or have simply disappeared. The majority of these megadams are constructed without any EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment). The idea is to rush in and have the dam half-way built so that protest will be futile. Chinese PLA troops and other paramilitary forces may cordon off the area of dam construction and bar all visitors from transiting the region. Back in the 1990s, in far-west Tibet, a dam was built on a tributary of the Indus River. The Indus is the lifeline of Pakistan. Pakistani authorities only found out about the dam after it was completed—when it was spotted on satellite images by a British researcher.
Guoduo was specifically built to power nearby Yulong Copper Mine—the largest copper mine in China, and among the biggest in Asia. China is crazy for copper—never seems to get enough of the stuff. Copper plays a big role in an alarming new development concerning hydropower. Copper is the key component in Ultra-High Voltage (UHV) lines. Which can transport hydropower over long distances—to China’s power-hungry coastal cities. The UHV technology has only been introduced in Tibet in the last five years, courtesy of German giant Siemens. These UHV lines are a game-changer: by hooking up dams in Tibet to a national grid, China can power up factories some 3,000 kilometres away—in industrial cities on the east coast like Shanghai. The UHV lines can also be used to export power back to China from Chinese dams built in neighbouring nations like Burma. For the nations downstream on the Mekong, there’s another worrying scenario shaping up: dams provide gateways for diverting water. The water is stored in the dam’s reservoir—from where it can be siphoned off and rerouted to irrigate specific regions. Those regions would be northeast China, where there is a desperate lack of water for people and industry, and northwest China, where large-scale fracking and oil-sands extraction are on the drawing board. Both forms of extraction require enormous amounts of water, and both lie in desert regions where there is very little water—hence the plans to divert the abundant waters from Tibet. China has mastered the engineering of huge water transfers, with two branches operational on the South-to-North Water Transfer, the largest water diversion project on earth. And China has indicated that it is not in the least concerned what happens to the downstream nations if the waters of the Mekong and other rivers from Tibet are diverted for use in China. Yulong Copper Mine presents another nasty potential scenario for the Mekong: the mine could pollute nearby rivers. Meaning heavy-metal pollution would be carried all the way downstream.
Dams and Damned Lies
You have heard of the Three Gorges Dam, the largest concrete structure on earth—and far and away the largest dam on earth, with an output of 22,500 megawatts. But you most likely have not heard of her ugly sister, Nuozhadu Dam, which started operating on the Mekong in 2014. This monster dam has an output of 5,850 megawatts—about a quarter of the capacity of the Three Gorges Dam. Nuozhadu’s output is roughly equivalent to that of five nuclear reactors. Just upstream from Nuozhadu is Xiaowan Dam, among the tallest arched dams in the world. From the base up, Xiaowan is the height of a 90-story building—about the same height as the 300-metre Eiffel Tower (without its present broadcast tower). Xiaowan is 40 metres higher than Bitexco Financial Tower, the tallest building in Saigon.
Xiaowan Dam has a reservoir that stretches back over 160 kilometres. Megadam reservoirs are actually more deadly than the dams themselves. Dams block the passage of silt. Reservoirs release methane from rotting vegetation trapped when the region is flooded to build the dam. China claims that megadams are “green,” with no greenhouse emissions, unlike coal-fired plants. But the Green Dam spiel is a myth. Methane is a greenhouse gas nightmare—it is at least 20 times more potent than CO2. Reservoirs contain stagnant water—where nothing much can survive. Reservoirs are killers of biodiversity. The capacity of Xiaowan is 4,200 megawatts. Put Nuozhadu and Xiawan together and you get a hydro capacity of over 10,000 megawatts. And there are four more monster dams operational in Yunnan—Gongguoqiao, Manwan, Dachaoshan and Jinghong. All are part of a cascade of dams under construction by Huaneng Group, which has the exclusive concession to build, own, and operate dams on the Mekong within the People’s Republic of China. In Thailand, hydro projects are controversial and have been blocked by environmental campaigns, but Huaneng doesn’t seem concerned about Chinese protesters. Huaneng has no shareholders who might call for environmental impact surveys.
The turbines of these megadams are giant money-spinners for corporations like Hauneng. Megadams mean big business for dam builders, subcontractors, investors, and others—which can trigger corruption and bribery on a large scale. In China, business is all about having the right connections, and cronyism and nepotism are rife. Take, for instance, the family of former premier Li Peng, a megadam advocate who was instrumental in getting the Three Gorges Dam built. From 1999 to 2008, Huaneng Group was essentially run by Li Peng’s son, Li Xiaopeng. Consolidating the family’s influence in the power industry, Li Peng’s daughter Li Xiaolin moved up the ranks to take the reins of energy giant China Power International Development. And while she was doing this, the Panama Papers, leaked in 2016, reveal that she salted away millions of dollars in a hidden Swiss bank account—most likely courtesy of her father, premier Li Peng. That was while Li Peng was in office, so those millions could well represent large kickback payments from contractors vying for contracts for the Three Gorges Dam.
Looming Crisis on the Mekong
The Mekong was virtually untouched by dams until 1994, when Manwan Dam in Yunnan came into operation. So the Mekong has seen just two decades of frenzied Chinese dam-building. A frenzy that is now increasing in tempo, as in 2015, China announced its intention to double existing hydropower capacity by 2020. That means dozens of Chinese dams are slated to be built upstream on the Mekong and its tributaries. Together, these dams will wreak havoc on the Mekong’s ecosystem in the five nations downstream—Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong brings a lot more than water downstream: for thousands of years, the river has supplied nutrient-rich silt to nourish crops, and the river has brought fish—a prime source of protein for Cambodia and Vietnam. The river supports an entire ecosystem. Up to 90 percent of silt is blocked by the dams in Yunnan, and there is no way fish can get around a 300-metre-high dam, so fish migration patterns and spawning grounds are completely disrupted. The first major dam to be built on the Mekong mainstream outside of Tibet and China is Xayabouri Dam, under way at a cost of US$3.5 billion. The dam is situated in northern Laos. Over a third completed, the dam is mostly funded by Thailand, which will receive 90 percent of the 1,285-megawatt hydropower generated. Thailand refused to study the dam’s transboundary impact before beginning construction: the environmental impact assessment only examines an area about 10 km downstream. Various groups called for a ten-year delay on Xayabouri to study transboundary impact, but the requests were ignored.
This sets a dangerous precedent for further dam building in Laos. Xayaburi is the flagship dam in the ambitious—and suicidal—strategy by Laos to become “the battery of Asia”—mostly exporting power to neighbouring Thailand. There are ten more megadams on the drawing board for the Mekong within Laos. That represents eleven more nails in the coffin of the Mekong. Make no mistake—these megadams sound the death-knell for the Mekong. And this is not a natural death, nor even one that can be blamed on external factors like climate change. It is murder, pure and simple, by greedy state-run engineering corporations in China, Laos and Thailand. A river without silt or fish is a dead river. There are alternate sources of energy that can be utilized instead of relying on destructive megadams. One solution is to build smaller run-of-the-river dams (no reservoir, so no deadly methane emissions). New technology is evolving for deployment of submerged turbines, lying under the water on the river bed. Submerged turbines generate power, but would not interfere with the vital free-flow of water, silt and fish.
One of the world’s strangest ecosystems is found at Lake Tonle Sap, which is connected to the Mekong via the Tonle River. During the rainy season from June to October, the Mekong River rises, and tide current flows into Tonle River. At the end of the rainy season in November, when the water level of the Mekong drops again, the tide current reverts and flows back into the Mekong River. Cambodia stages an annual water festival in Phnom Penh that attracts some 250 dragon boats for racing and other festivities. The festival is to express gratitude to the Mekong River for providing the country with fertile land and abundant fish. That may well be about to change—for the worse. During the rainy season, Lake Tonle Sap swells to more than five times its original size, and millions of fish-fry hatch. When the lake later recedes, this becomes the richest fishing ground in Asia—the source of up to 70 percent of Cambodia’s fish. China claims its dams on the Mekong will prevent flooding downstream—but the Lake Tonle Sap ecosystem depends on flooding. The sudden collapse of the mighty Angkor Empire in the 13th century was possibly linked to problems with waterworks. Now a similar scenario looms—for very different reasons. Incredibly, there are plans afoot to build megadams on the Mekong and tributaries in Cambodia. That would be plans afoot to shoot the nation in the foot, because dams like this would rob Lake Tonle Sap of its abundant stocks of fish, for starters. Approved for construction is 400-MW Lower Sesan 2 Dam on the Sesun River, a tributary about 20 km from the Mekong in Stung Treng Province, northeastern Cambodia. This is joint Chinese-Cambodian venture. The Chinese backer is Hydrolancang, a subsidiary of Huaneng Group which has built the major dams in Yunnan. Lurking in the wings is Chinese megadam builder Sinohydro, which completed Kimcheay Dam in Cambodia’s southwest. Sinohydro and other Chinese consortiums are keen on building large dams on Cambodia’s rivers. These dam proposals have been fiercely protested by villagers in the affected regions, but the deals are signed by prime minister Hun Sen, who has held the reins of power since 1985—and who has never hesitated to unleash security forces to stamp out any hint of opposition to his plans. Hun Sen’s power base in Cambodia is propped up by China, which treats Cambodia as a kind of fiefdom, being its biggest investor and leading aid donor. China is bent on exploiting Cambodia’s mining, forestry and oil sectors, with proposed Chinese-built railways and highways to allow access. Illegal exploitation goes on under the radar, such as the smuggling out of rare rosewood to China for use in furniture making.
Who Can Stop the Dam Builders?
Who can stop the megadam builders destroying the Mekong? All it takes is cancellation of new dam building projects, which can be done with the stroke of a pen—at high levels, of course. ASEAN has proved ineffective at putting any pressure on China, since Cambodia and Laos are pro-China and shoot down, or water down, attempts to make China accountable for its megadam building on the Mekong and tributaries. Originally set up in 1995 to preserve the Mekong and negate the impact of trans-boundary developments, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has done precious little to fulfil its mandate. From the start, Burma and China refused to join the MRC, which dealt a huge blow to its mandate. The next thing that happened was that the MRC decided to concerned itself only with megadams on the Mekong mainstream. So Laos managed to get away with building big dams like 520-MW Nam Theun I and 1075-MW Nam Theun II on a Mekong tributary—a nasty loophole whereby the damage is still done to the Mekong. On November 12, 2007, a petition was delivered to the MRC. With half a dozen major dam projects looming on the horizon in the lower Mekong countries, the petition demanded that the MRC fulfil its mission to protect the river, in light of compelling scientific evidence that warns of the disastrous consequences of damming the lower Mekong. The petition was endorsed by 201 organisations and individuals from 30 countries, with unprecedented support from civil society groups from Mekong countries. In a meeting held in November 2007 at Siem Reap, a protest letter was addressed to the Mekong River Commission and financial institutions. It observed that the MRC has “remained notably silent”, in the face of these new hydropower projects. The letter added “If the MRC does not act now to uphold the 1995 Agreement and defend the ecological integrity of the Mekong, the institution is a river authority in name only and does not deserve the tens of millions of dollars worth of grant and technical assistance that it receives from international donor agencies.” So long and thanks for all the fish: Jeremy Bird, former CEO of the MRC, made this extraordinary statement in comments reported by a Vietnamese journal: “Mitigation efforts for fisheries were being explored. Fish ways, if properly constructed, could allow migratory species to pass through a mainstream hydroelectric dam.” Jeremy Bird in fact contradicted the conclusions of his own organisation. When a panel of 17 experts was convened 2008 by the MRC to study the possibility of mitigating the effects of dams built on the mainstream of the river, they reached the unanimous conclusion that all three suggested ways of achieving mitigation would fail—including the construction of fish ways, or bypasses, that would allow fish to swim around dams. Ever seen a fish attempt to get around a dam that is 300 metres in wall height? Perhaps this calls for breeding of a new species of super-fish with suckers that can tackle steep walls? Or perhaps the fish need to evolve with the dams and develop wings? Let’s hope the MRC comes to its senses and does something worthy of its mandate. It took a great stride in that direction with its January 2016 appointment of new CEO Pham Tuan Phan, a Vietnamese with impressive credentials for this dealing with the MRC’s daunting tasks.
Who Will Take the Refugees?
One sure result of everything thus far discussed will be environmental refugees—hundreds of thousands of them, if not millions of them—in the near future. Farmers from the Mekong Delta, forced to abandon their crops due to drought, salt intrusion, pollution, flooding, and lack of nutrients in the rivers. Fishermen who can no longer rely on a wild fish catch and become jobless. The list goes on… Rivers are living ecosystems: to remain healthy, they demand respect. As a Thai campaigner for Rivers International puts it: “The Mekong is not a tap. It is a complex ecosystem.” It is high time that all the nations involved with the Mekong, from Tibet and China all the way downstream to Vietnam at the Mekong Delta, change their attitude to one of respecting the river—and recognizing the vital role it plays.
This article was originally published in the Mekong Review. It has been reprinted here with permission. Michael Buckley is author of Tibet, Disrupted (a digital photobook available on Amazon Kindle and Apple iBooks) and Meltdown in Tibet.