May 21, 2009

Dam Projects Could Threaten Mekong River

A U.N. report said Thursday that a dam-building spree in China poses the greatest threat to the future of the already beleaguered Mekong, one of the world's major rivers and a key source of water for the region, The Associated Press reported.

Eight dams are being constructed on the upper half of the Mekong as it passes through high gorges of Yunnan Province.

The U.N. report said the newly completed Xiowan Dam is the world's tallest at 958 feet high and has a storage capacity equal to all the Southeast Asia reservoirs combined.

The U.N. also said Laos started construction on 23 dams on the Mekong and its tributaries that are scheduled to be completed by 2010. Officials say the construction is meant to spur development and lift the country from poverty.

Several ambitious dam-building plans are also in the works for Cambodia and Vietnam.

However, the report warned that China's extremely ambitious plan to build a massive cascade of eight dams on the upper half of the Mekong River, as it tumbles through the high gorges of Yunnan Province, might pose the single greatest threat to the river.

Some of the impacts of the proposed dam development include changes in river flow volume and timing, water quality deterioration and loss of biodiversity.

The government pays equal attention to the development of the Mekong and its protection, according to China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu. In China, the Mekong is known as the Lancang River.

Ma pointed out that the Chinese government attaches great importance to the exploration and the protection of cross-border rivers and conducts the policy of equal attention to development and protection.

The Mekong, which runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam would likely suffer more pressure from the proposed damns.

Dozens of rare bird and marine species, including the Mekong giant catfish, make their home in the 307,000-square-mile river network. It is also a source of food and jobs for the 65 million people who live in the river basin.

Water levels have dropped sharply on the upper Mekong due to pollution, climate change and the effects of earlier dams that were built in China.

But for the time being, the Mekong's pollution levels were not at "alarming levels" and water shortages and conflicts over water on the Mekong have not emerged so far, the report said.

Mukand S. Babel, one of the reports' authors, said the Mekong is in good condition at this time and could stand more pressure from irrigation or industrial development.

But according to the report, several river basins in the Mekong including the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, Nam Khan in Laos and Sekong-Sesan Srepok in Vietnam and Cambodia are under threat due to increasing development and demand for water.

Countries bordering the Mekong are being called on to work more closely together to ensure that the region's growing population and expected economic development doesn't further strain the capacity of the delta.

Young-Woo Park, a U.N. regional director, said the time to tackle these challenges is now.

"Otherwise the projected growth and development may impact on the basin's ability to meet future water needs."

Image Courtesy Wikipedia