Is building dams on the Mekong River for electricity generation and irrigation a good development policy? If you ask the government of Lao PDR, the answer will be “yes!”
More than twelve major dam projects have been planned along the Mekong River and its tributaries, which would face a larger number of dams in every direction. Most of the dams will be located in Lao PDR whose government is an outspoken dam proponent, claiming that it would significantly boost the country's GDP and lift the nation out of poverty.
But before believing the Lao government, please let me show you some facts to make the decision yourself.
The Mekong River is one of the most biologically rich areas in the world. It is a home to a myriad of species of fish, dolphins and crocodiles among others. The Mekong river is considered to be the vein of the region. It gives life to more than 60 million people in China and four other countries of the region: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Fishery is the most important source of the livelihood of people along the Mekong River. Up to 56 percent of the protein intake of Lao population consists of fish and other seafood — most of which comes from the river.
Moreover, social and cultural values of the people have also been shaped by the river and are closely connected to it. In China, similar dam projects on the Yangtze river have resulted in a drastic population decline of four key fish species and the species of the tributaries have declined from 143 to only seventeen species.
In Thailand, the Pak Mun Dam brought the loss of at least forty edible vegetable species, ten bamboo species and more than one hundred herb species. At least fifty of the 265 species of fish have permanently disappeared.
The World Bank recorded that the GDP per capita of Lao PDR rose from 887 USD in 2008 to 1399 USD in 2010. However, a more throughout look into the data illuminates that the gap between the top and the bottom ten percent of people is more than ten times wider and it is still widening.
Looking at these facts, I am convinced that firstly, Mekong River is an invaluable cornerstone to this region and its people environmentally, economically and socially secodly, building dams would significantly and negatively impact the lives of people not only in the area but also in greater Lao PDR and thirdly, a dam will do very little to lift the nation out of poverty.
More likely, it will make the situation of the poorest even worse.
The loss of fish species, as a result of dam construction, is not only a critical environmental issue but also a critical food security issue – one that would hinder the economic and social development that Lao government is trying to promote. Dams are not only part of bad environmental policy but also bad development and economic policy altogether.