Development vs. environment: The struggles of the mighty Mekong
Rising at the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong River goes through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It is 4,900km long, and its lower basin is the biggest source of food and income in the Southeast Asian mainland (Indochina). The Mekong River is the biggest inland fishery in the world and accounts for up to 25% of the global freshwater catch. After the Amazon River, it is the richest area of biodiversity on Earth; it is home to 20,000 plant species, 430 mammals, 1,200 birds, 800 reptiles and amphibians, around 850 different kinds of fish, as well as the last remaining populations of the Irrawaddy dolphin, giant freshwater stingray and the Mekong giant catfish. The Mekong River Basin (800,000 km2) is home to around 70 million people, and two thirds of them rely directly on its waters as a direct source of life.
But, unfortunately, the Mekong and the life that thrives from it are being seriously threatened by a number of dangers, all of them due to human intervention. Hydropower infrastructure, climate change, wildlife trade and deforestation are the main causes that are killing the Mekong and destroying the livelihoods of those who have depended on it for centuries.
As the population and urbanization in the Greater Mekong increases, there is more demand for energy, natural resources and transport infrastructure. From all the economic plans being carried out by different countries, the largest and most dangerous ones are those that concern hydropower dams. As much as these developments are an unconditional requirement in order to improve the livelihoods of the millions of people who live in the region, the lack of institutional, technological, and financial sufficiency in these countries are making it very difficult to fulfill sustainable plans. Hydropower development is the quickest way to provide electricity to millions of houses, but if this is not approached in a sustainable manner, the environmental consequences, which are already striking, could be irreversible.
The first hydropower plans started in the 1950’s, but the wars, along with the political and economical instability of the moment interrupted the projects until 1990, when China started to build the Lancang River dam cascade. Five of them were already finished by 2012, and the rest are still to be constructed. Currently, there are more that 70 dams under construction in China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
(footnote: Lancang Dam, China)
According to the study ‘Trading-off Fish Biodiversity, Food Security, and Hydropower in the Mekong River Basin’ (2012), published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “if all of the dams that are planned up until 2030 are finally built, the fish production of the area would decrease 50% and 100 fish species could disappear. Also, the flow of nutrients that nourishes the Mekong Delta would be interrupted, decreasing the delta’s capacity to replenish itself, making it more vulnerable to sea level rise and saline intrusion, which would affect enormously the fertility of an area that harbors the 90% of the rice production in Vietnam. Doctor Guy Ziv, from the School of Geography of the University of Leeds concludes that “it would be a disaster with disastrous consequences for fishery and the biodiversity of the region”.
In an essay ‘Requiem for a River’ (2016) published by The Economist, environmentalists affirm that “the Mekong might survive a few big mainstream dams, but a dozen—plus dozens more on its tributaries—present a qualitatively different sort of threat. The harm done by dams is greater than governments claim, and the benefits are overestimated. Touting hydropower as “green” because it can be used in the place of fossil-fuel derived electricity overlooks external costs such as compensation and relocation, lost agricultural productivity and biodiversity and lowered water quality. And although benefits may be large (especially for electricity exporters), they are hardly overwhelming, especially in the context of broader development. ”
Footnote: Ubol Ratana Dam, Thailand
Many of the countries, specially Laos, which are poor and reap little natural resources, see hydropower as a hope to development. But, according to Richard Cronin, a Mekong specialist at the Stimson Centre, “the nine Lao and two Cambodian dams currently discussed would provide just 6-8% of the total electricity needs of the lower Mekong basin by 2030, with most of the power going to Thailand. For that, you’re going to kill the river?”
Of course, hydropower plans are just the visible face of political and economical interests, which creates even more conflicts among the countries involved, especially regarding the power of China over all the others. According to an official from the Department of International Relations, Science and Technology under China’s Ministry of Water Resources, “China holds water in the upper areas but later releases it to lower areas so no water is lost in the end. When countries in the lower areas are in the rainy season, they do not need much water so China stores it to generate electricity. When the dry season comes, China discharges the water. This process helps prevent floods and droughts in lower areas.” However, Dao Trong Tu, former vice general secretary of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, disagrees with this position, and told VnExpress that “China uses water as it pleases to generate electricity, not to balance water levels further down the Mekong. Thats why water levels in its reservoirs are purely dependent on demand for power in China.
The pressure of experts and international NGO’s are slowing down the construction of several dams, such as the Don Sahong and the Pak Beng in Laos, but, unfortunately, the environmental future of the Mekong is seriously threatened.
The Mekong region is one of the places that is being more affected by climate change on Earth, provoking hotter temperatures, severe storms and a rise in the sea level, all of which are impacting directly on its inhabitants and on its biodiversity. Of course, the infrastructure developments mentioned before, which exacerbate all of these threats, make this region especially vulnerable to climate change.
Over the past ten years, the region has been facing extreme weather changes, like El Niño – a phenomenon that occurs every four to five years and it is described by the National Geographic Society as an “unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean” and provokes drier and hotter conditions in all Southeast Asia. This leads to dramatic droughts and water scarcity, which triggers a decrease of agricultural productivity, and, consequently, to food scarcity, unemployment and poverty. Currently, there is 50% less water streaming into the Delta from the Mekong mainstream, caused by drought as well as by the infrastructure developments mentioned before, which causes an intrusion of the salt water from the ocean and increases the salt intensity in the soil dramatically, affecting negatively in the productivity of the land. On the other side, storms are stronger and more frequent, creating serious floods that have also damaged important production areas, such as rice fields or fertile deltas.
The FAO affirms that “at least an additional 50 million people would soon be facing serious hunger due to climate change and the number will climb to almost 130 million by 2050” since “the damage to infrastructure and farms from the increasing frequency of natural disasters has further worsened food insecurity”.
Illegal wildlife trade
The Mekong has one of the richest flora and fauna on Earth; it is home to some of the world’s most endangered species and, according to the WWF (World Wildlife Organization), “a global hub for illegal wildlife trade. It is estimated that around 3,700 to 4,500 tonnes of wildlife products, except birds and insects, are traded every year, only in Vietnam, which supplies international markets, specially China, with a variety of plants and animals”.
This results in the loss of a large amount of species, and affects the ecosystems on which millions of people depend. The precious Javan rhino in Vietnam was declared extinct in 2011, after years of being killed to remove and sell its horns. This practice was especially popular in Vietnam, where many belief that the horns cure cancer, and are sold for the price of gold as a result.
On the other hand, there is still a large number of new species being discovered every year in the Greater Mekong region. “The Greater Mekong region is a magnet for the world’s conservation scientists because of the incredible diversity of species that continue to be discovered here”, says Jimmy Borah, Wildlife Program Manager for WWF – Greater Mekong, to TIME magazine. “These scientists, the unsung heroes of the planet, know they are against time to ensure that these newly discovered species are protected and saved.”
The forests in the Mekong region are a hub of natural resources; they are rich in carbon, they protect against the impacts of drought and flash-floods, they supply clean water and food, provide materials for construction, trade, and for other ecological services. But these natural resources are being badly exploited with unsustainable logging by the countries that lie by the Mekong. This, along with the growth of the population, very poor economic policies and bad agricultural planning are the reason why, during the past 30 years, the forest covering the Mekong region has reduced by up to 30%.
As a vicious cycle, when forests are destroyed in order to start plantations, they release large amounts of Co2 and other greenhouse gases into the air, which aggravates climate change. Also, the loss of biodiversity weakens the region and makes it even more vulnerable to the impacts of all the other threats that it faces, including climate change. As a consequence, animals have difficulties to find a new habitats or to follow their natural migration routes, which makes them more susceptible to diseases and other complications that, eventually, might aggravate the environmental crisis in the Mekong.
The increase of agricultural activities impacts significantly on the environment. And, since agricultural plans often come along with infrastructure projects like roads, bridges or dams, which degrade the environment even more, the final impacts can be dramatic.
This can make it difficult for some animals to find suitable habitat or to follow usual migration routes. It can also increase inbreeding, which in turn can increase the vulnerability of species to disease and other pressures. When habitats are isolated, species also become more vulnerable to climate change, as their ability to move to areas with more favorable conditions becomes increasingly limited.
But, all of the above is comparable to what is happening anyhwere else in this planet. Unfortunately, political and economical interests tend to overlook the wellbeing of our environment and the people who live in it. However, there is still a lot to be done, and the time to surrender has not yet arrived.
“Requiem for a river” The Economist, 2016. Web “Mekong River Dams” National Geographic, 2015. Web
“Hydropower Development in the Greater Mekong” WWF. Web
“Climate change in the Greater Mekong” WWF. Web
“Deforestation and degradation in the Greater Mekong” WWF. Web
Ziva, Guy; Baranb, Eric; Namc, So; Rodriguez- Iturbed, Ignacio; Levina, Simon Al.Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences- Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin. 2012
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