Mekong River faces a damming issue

Serving as South-east Asia’s most iconic waterway, the Mekong River is the lifeblood 
of the countries it flows through. However, fears are being raised that the 
rampant construction of dams will take a toll on the environment 
and tourism, writes Marissa Carruthers

Hen Chanda is enjoying the steadily growing trickle of tourists visiting his home province of Kratie in eastern Cambodia. Home to one of the world’s only surviving pockets of Irrawaddy dolphins, endangered Cantor’s softshell turtles and an idyllic Cambodian countryside that takes in the Mekong River, a growing collection of ecotourism initiatives have been launched in the area to create livelihood opportunities for some of the country’s poorest communities.

Hen, who has been a tour guide for seven years, said: “Community-based tourism development is starting to become popular in Kratie and the Mekong River plays an important role, with boat tours to see the dolphins and staying with communities along the river being the number one activities.”

However, Hen fears the future of Kratie’s nascent ecotourism sector hangs delicately in the balance, thanks to a swathe of hydropower plants that are being constructed along the Mekong River in Laos and Cambodia.

Is Laos paying a hefty price for its dam investment? The Xayaburi dam, in northern Laos, pictured

“There has been a lot of research that shows the negative effects these dams will have,” he said. “And this will impact tourism along the Mekong.”

As part of Laos’ bid to be the “battery of Asia”, the government has been constructing dozens of dams across the landlocked country to export to its power-hungry neighbours like Thailand.

In Cambodia, several more hydropower plants are under construction or being planned, including the country’s largest dam at Sambor in Kratie. A study commissioned by the Cambodian government and carried out by the US-based natural resources conservation NGO Natural Heritage Institute states that “a dam at this site could literally kill the river, unless sited, designed and operated sustainably. Sambor is the worst possible place to build a major dam.”

Sinan Thourn, chairman of PATA Cambodia, predicts the dams will drastically affect areas, such as Kratie and Stung Treng in northern Cambodia, where eco-tourism is mushrooming. He said: “The animals, fish and livelihoods of the people will disappear. These areas are already very different from what they were… The Mekong’s rich resources, which also attract tourists, are being drained.”

Miles Gravett, general manager of Khiri Travel Cambodia, agreed: “The Mekong is the lifeblood of Cambodia. The river is an identifiable landmark in the region and a name that everyone knows or has heard of prior to arriving in Cambodia.”

Besides the effects felt in Kratie, the dams blocking the flow of water downstream have the potential to impact on the Tonle Sap Lake and its delicate ecosystem that attracts tourists, he added. The Mekong converges with the Tonle Sap River in Phnom Penh, pushing water up to the “Great Lake” in Siem Reap. Boat trips are common on the UNESCO biosphere reserve, where many endangered wildlife and floating villages call home.

In Laos, the hydropower plants are already affecting the tourism sector, making operations more difficult and the journey more expensive for customers, Asian Trails’ CEO Laurent Kuenzie told TTG Asia. The DMC now has to use one boat for the first part of the journey, move clients overland for a short part, then another boat for the final stretch.

Stefan Scheerer, general manager, Khiri Travel Laos, noted that the dam construction in Muang Noi in northern Laos has already had a negative impact on clients’ experience. “Once one of the most stunning landscapes is now divided by a huge, ugly dam,” he opined. “Not only is tourism is suffering, the local communities (also) do not profit from these mega projects.”

He shared: “The Mekong River plays a very important role for tourism in Laos. Not only is the Mekong very present in any marketing material, it is also essential for excursions and activities. The waterways are a great way to enjoy the beautiful natural landscapes of rural Laos, which is increasingly under danger through dams and other constructions.”

The recent collapse of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in Attapeu province has revealed the ugly side of Laos’ energy ambitions, with some 34 people killed, hundreds reported missing and more than 6,000 people displaced. Water also flooded into the Sekong River, sending floods downstream in Cambodia, and caused damage to agricultural land in the Mekong Delta, Vietnam.

The Laotian government has since announced that it will suspend all new hydropower projects. A task force has also been set up to inspect dams that are complete or under construction.

While this reprieve has been welcomed, fears over the future of the Mekong remain. “Sadly, it is locals who will feel the worst effects of damming the Mekong as fisheries deteriorate and tourist and shipping trade traffic dwindle,” said Gravett.

“A slightly cheaper electricity bill is not worth the long-term damage some of the dam proposals could cause.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly wrote about a leaked report of a study commissioned by the Cambodian government and carried out by the US-based research and consultancy firm National Heritage Institute. The report was not leaked and was published before June 2018 by US-based natural resources conservation NGO Natural Heritage Institute. 

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