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In search of the good dam

01 November 2012, CPWF Mekong

Dams are all about tradeoffs. Will retailers in Bangkok accept earlier store closing hours to save electricity? Are consumers in Phnom Penh prepared to trade cheap electricity for higher fish prices? Can Vietnam afford to risk the productivity of its rice bowl? These tradeoffs between water, energy and food are what distinguish a ‘good’ dam from a disaster and are the main topic of discussion at this year’s Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy in Hanoi this November 13-14.

"We all enjoy the benefits that come with electric lighting, household appliances and, someday soon perhaps, electric cars", says Kim Geheb, Mekong Basin Leader for the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food. "But how do we do this without affecting food production and the health of the environment? How do we ensure that rapid, large-scale dam development is fair and equitable? Answers to these questions are at the heart of what constitutes a 'good' dam."

At stake in the ongoing debate over dams in and on the Mekong are billions of dollars in infrastructure development and energy sales. The controversial Xayaburi dam, currently on hold pending negotiations among the four member countries of the Mekong River Commission, will cost an estimated 3.5 billion dollars. In addition to the 30 some operational dams on the mainstream and its tributaries, another 71 projects are slated for completion by 2030.

Dams could generate many more billions of dollars by powering agricultural, industrial and urban growth. The IMF forecasts economic growth in the Mekong countries at 5-6% for the next several years at least. Growth requires energy and the Mekong is a potential hydropower dynamo. The mainstream and its tributaries could generate an estimated 30,000 Mega Watts, with over half that coming from the mainstream and tributaries in the Lao P.D.R. Vietnam already consumes twice that amount annually and Thailand five times that figure. Cambodia needs an estimated 60 to 80 percent increase in electricity generation by 2015 to power the industries it needs to employ its growing population. Sales from its huge hydropower potential could lift Laos out of poverty.

"The booming Mekong region needs energy and lots of it. But it would be unwise to further develop energy sources that exacerbate climate change. Hydropower is 'clean' in that it doesn't produce a lot of greenhouse gases, but it can be risky. I think it's important to remember that there are alternative methods for taking advantage of water's energy potential" says Geheb.

Hydropower may have a lot going for it in terms of clean, renewable energy, but gone are the days when developers can plonk a dam on a river, flip the switch and consider the job done. Concerned citizens and NGOs have brought a host of environmental and social issues to the attention of riparian governments that were once considered unrelated to the business of generating electricity.

"Discussions about dams are no longer one-dimensional," says Geheb. "A dam is a nexus; the point where complex physical, biological, socio-economic and cultural interests intersect."

Under a growing number of watchful eyes, governments and dam developers now need to calculate the costs of resettling entire villages, ensuring continued ecosystem health, and sharing the costs and benefits of dams fairly throughout the basin. As the number of dams increase, they must also take into account the cumulative impact of cascades of dams on the overall functioning of the river basin across political boundaries.

The Vietnamese, for example, have grave concerns about how all upstream dams will affect the delivery of sediments that sustain the highly fertile and productive Mekong Delta, the country's main rice growing region. Up and down the river, millions of people derive food and income from one of the world's great inland fisheries. Citizens of the Mekong Basin consume an average of 50 to 70 kilograms of fish annually at some of the cheapest prices in the world. Dams could significantly reduce those figures. No surprise then that social unrest surrounding the construction of dams is high on the list of concerns among policy makers striving for economic growth and social harmony.

"What makes this forum special is the involvement of high level government policy makers and a wide range of stakeholders, and the focus on open dialog", says Geheb "Even the poorest fishers along the river recognize the benefits of cheap electricity, but they have legitimate concerns for their livelihoods and the fate of their communities in the immediate and long-term future."

Mekong governments are struggling to figure out how they can generate increasing amounts of climate friendly power without incurring unacceptable social and environmental costs, but even the most transparent, even-handed efforts will leave some individuals and interest groups unhappy.

"The good dam is the one that minimizes the unhappiness," says Geheb. "To do that we need more research to fill the gaps in our knowledge and take a precautionary approach to planning and implementation."

The meeting in Hanoi is the second annual Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy and will focus on the connections between food, water and energy and how those relationships shape development, economic growth, livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

The Forum is convened by the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food and co-hosted by the Institute for Water Resources Planning, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam, M-Power and the International Water Management Institute. The Challenge Program is a partner of the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems. The event is funded through a grant from the Australian Government through AusAID.

For more information on this story, contact the author Terry Clayton at

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