Mekong River Development Needs Greater Transparency

27 November 2012 | News story

New film “Mekong” explores the dynamics of hyrdropower up and down one of the world’s great rivers and takes a balanced views of sensitive’ topics.

Bangkok, Thailand (November 27) – A new movie on the Mekong River explores the impacts that hydropower development will have through the eyes of its citizens, those who are transforming it, those who have gained, and those who have lost.

The “Mekong”, was independently produced and directed by Douglas Varchol with support from CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF), IUCN’s Mekong Water Dialogues project and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).

It features stories from Mekong Citizens up and down the river, from fishers on the Tonle Sap, activists still fighting at the Pak Mun dam in Thailand, to a vice minister from Laos convinced he can build the region's most "river-transparent" dam. Filmed in four countries and narrated and subtitled in five languages, English, Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese, it includes footage of China's Mekong [Lancang] dams, as well as on-site footage of the controversial Xayaburi Dam in Laos.

The production was granted special access to the Xayaburi Dam site which officially broke ground in November 2012. The film team talks with Mr Viraphohn Viravong, Vice Minister of the Ministry of Energy and Mines, who explains how the Government of Lao PDR is taking into consideration a range of concerns that have been raised about the dam.

“Dam building is a complicated business. There are many interests at stake and each group feels that they are trying the best they can.” Commenting on the film Mr Viravong says, “In order to develop our hydro potential, we shall be very open and we are keen to engage with different views and to discuss these issues, learn from each other's experiences and share our own.”

More than 140 dams are planned for the lower Mekong basin. The biggest concern about these is the impacts these will have on the environment, ecology and livelihoods of the more than 60 million people who depend on the river for food and income. The Lower Mekong Basin provides more fish to more people than any other river in the world. With an estimated commercial value exceeding USD 2 billion per year, it is the world's most valuable inland fishery.

The film is neither pro nor anti dam. While it shows that the fish ladder installed at the Pak Mun dam has been completely ineffective, it also shows that the National University of Lao experts are working on how to construct an effective fish ladder system for Mekong species, but it will take years of research to perfect a design. The innovative fish pass design on the Xayaburi (comprising three possible routes for fish to follow) is untested, but may work and set a standard for other dams built in the basin.

Robert Mather, IUCN's Head of Southeast Asia Group, points out that “recent studies suggest that the Lower Sesan II dam alone will cause a 9% decline of fisheries in the Lower Mekong, whilst IUCN’s freshwater Red-Listing process suggests at least 11% more fish species will become endangered as a result of hydropower development on the Mekong – in both cases the findings indicate very high risks to local food security and livelihoods” adding that “in this situation it is worrying that we are relying on un-tested or un-proven technology to attempt mitigate the impacts, rather than taking the time to do the necessary studies before going ahead”.

The film also focuses on the issues of governance and transparency in the ways hydropower decisions are made. It juxtaposes a relatively successful relocation process at the Namtheun Hinboun Expansion Project in Laos with an opaque and highly controversial hydropower development on the Lower Sesan in Cambodia. It also explores issues of energy efficiency and alternatives to reliance on solely hydropower.

“For too long the debate on developing the Mekong has been polarized and closed. By showing all sides, the film allows for greater dialogue and different stakeholders to move beyond entrenched positions”, says Kim Geheb, CPWF Basin Leader for the Mekong region. “The film also demonstrates the value of tackling sensitive and taboo issues surrounding hydropower development in a constructive manner. By allowing Mekong citizens access to more information, it allows more people to participate in the debate, which then becomes a less ‘sensitive’ issue. It is in this zone that sustainable hydropower can emerge".

The “Mekong” is being screened in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Viet Nam as part of the Goethe Institute Southeast Asian Film Festival and is available in all four languages. For more information go to the website: www.mekongcitizen.org

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The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (CPWF) was launched in 2002 as a reform initiative of the CGIAR. The CPWF aims to increase the resilience of social and ecological systems through better water management for food production (crops, fisheries and livestock). The CPWF does this through an innovative research and development approach that brings together a broad range of scientists, development specialists, policymakers and communities to address the challenges of food security, poverty and water scarcity. The CPWF is currently working in six river basins globally: Andes, Ganges, Limpopo, Mekong, Nile and Volta (www.waterandfood.org).

The Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD) is coordinated and facilitated by IUCN – International Union for Conservation of Nature and supported by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. It was initiated to work with countries of the Mekong Region – Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam – to improve water governance by facilitating transparent and inclusive decision-making to improve livelihood security, human and ecosystem health (www.iucn.org/asia/mekong_dialogues).

The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) works according to directives of the Swedish Parliament and Government to reduce poverty in the world. The overall goal of Swedish development cooperation is to contribute to making it possible for poor people to improve their living conditions. Swedish development cooperation is part of a global cooperation in which Sweden is one of many international participants. In order to carry out its work Sida cooperates with Swedish government agencies, organisations and associations and international bodies like the UN, the EU and the World Bank. Sida’s efforts are concentrated on issues where Sweden has specialist knowledge and experience and where there is the greatest demand for Swedish support.

For more information, please contact:

Dararat Weerapong, IUCN Senior Communications Officer
email: darararat.WEERAPONG@iucn.org tel+(66) 895178543

Michael Victor, CPWF Communication Coordinator
email: m.victor@cgiar.org tel: +94773950713