BANGKOK (AlertNet) – Sompong Viengchan is shown standing in front of a long, narrow concrete water channel on a steep slope beside the Pak Mun hydropower dam in northern Thailand, on a tributary of the Mekong River.
The concrete fish ladder was built as an afterthought when environmentalists’ warnings about the dam’s impact on fish migration proved accurate, and formerly thriving fishing and farming villages in the area were deprived of their food and livelihood.
The ladder was a dismal failure, Sompong, a fisherwoman-turned-activist who’s been fighting against the dam for 20 years, said in “Mekong”, a new documentary on the world’s 12th longest river that was screened in Bangkok on Tuesday.
“Fish are supposed to jump up from this side to the other side but they can’t,” she said. “We told them it wouldn’t work. The fish of the Mun River are big, they can’t swim into this channel.”
The dam has been operating since 1994 but the 3,000 families affected by its construction still face difficulties today, including the disruption of fisheries, inadequate compensation and health problems, Sompong told journalists at the screening on Tuesday.
The government has partly given in to the villagers’ persistent demands by opening the dam’s gates for four months a year to allow fish to spawn, but this isn’t enough, she said.
Experts say fish ladders, used at high dams in North America and Europe for salmon which have “remarkable jumping abilities that enable them to scale waterfalls and fish ladders more successfully than any other group of fish,” are not suitable for the species in the Mekong, none of which are salmon.
Yet, as energy demand is projected to almost double in the Asia Pacific region by 2030, governments and construction companies are going ahead with new dam building projects anyway.
The Lao government is using an untested fish ladder design in its controversial $3.5 billion, 1,260-megawatt Xayaburi hydropower project, aiming to allay the concern of its downstream neighbours, Vietnam and Cambodia, about the dam’s environmental, ecological, livelihood and food security impact on millions of people.
MUCH ADO ABOUT XAYABURI
Xayaburi is the first of a dozen dams planned by Laos and one of more than 140 due to be built in the lower Mekong basin - which provides more fish to more people than any other river in the world, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
It’s part-financed by Thai banks and its main developer is Thailand's second-biggest construction firm, Ch Karnchang Pcl. It plans to export 95 percent of the power it produces to Thailand.
In early November, Laos held a groundbreaking ceremony for the contentious dam, despite objections from environmentalists and neighbouring countries.
“If Laos wants to leave ‘least developed country’ status by 2020, (hydropower) is our only choice,” Vice Minister at the Energy and Mines Ministry Viraphohn Viravong, an engineer by training, says in the film, directed by Douglas Varchol.
The documentary screening and subsequent panel discussion, which brought together activists and experts from Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos – a rare occasion – came at a time of heightened interest and debate over the future of the Mekong, which flows from the Tibetan plateau to the South China Sea.
Witoon Permpongsacharoen, director of Mekong Energy and Ecology Network, is opposed to dams on the main Mekong River.
“You see a small one like Pak Mun has tremendous impact, and this is just on a tributary (of the Mekong), so what’s going to happen with the mainstream dams, the big ones like Xayaburi (almost 10 times as big as Pak Mun) and others? That's what really concerns us,” he said.
Daovong Phonekeo, director general at Laos’s department of energy policy and planning, is confident Xayaburi will be a force for good. The Environmental Impact Assessment found trans-boundary impacts to be “negligible” because Xayaburi is over 1,000 kilometres (625 miles) from the Mekong delta in Vietnam, he said.
“Lao people are not afraid of having dams,” he added.
FLAWED THAI ENERGY POLICY
Nguyen Huu Thien, an ecologist raised in the Mekong Delta, disagreed, saying Laos has failed to properly address legitimate concerns which also include the loss of sediment that enriches the soil and the possible collapse of ancillary industries around farming and fishery.
"The government of Laos relies only on the consultancy companies... and that's taking place outside the diplomatic process of the Mekong region,” he said.
“The technical proposals made by the engineers are only theoretical. They're not proven, so our concern remains,” he added.
But everyone wants bright lights and air-conditioning these days. With wind and solar still considered prohibitively expensive, what alternative do we have?
For Witoon, the problem lies in the inefficiency of existing power stations and current usage of power in Thailand. For example, while Pak Mun dam generates 160 million units of power per year, three big supermalls in Bangkok alone consume about 270 million units, he said.
Power consumption has not grown as much as predicted in the past 15 years and Thailand now has more than 3,000 megawatts of solar power available, as well as other forms of renewable energy, he said.
“But the system and policy don’t really promote that. It's still very much driven by the big energy industry, the construction company which gets a concession to build a dam on the Mekong, and Thai commercial banks which have lent more than $12 billion to build dams in Laos,” said Witoon.