Scientists Warn of Catastrophe for Food Security in the Mekong

By: 
Kirk Herbertson

To everyone who is nervously watching the Mekong governments gamble with the region’s food security:  the situation just became more complicated. Scientists, journalists, and activists have worked for years to raise concerns about 11 proposed dams on the Mekong River that would leave millions of people without enough food to survive. Numerous studies have shown that these 11 dams would block fish migrations, inundate agricultural lands, and uproot communities on an unprecedented scale. A global movement has rallied around the message that these dams should not be built on the Mekong River.

Yet this is not the only problem. A new study, published last week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), demonstrates that the threat to the Mekong region’s food security extends beyond damming the Mekong River itself. The study presents some shocking numbers about how dams on the Mekong’s tributaries are not getting the attention they deserve.

So far 51 dams have been built or are being built on tributaries to the Mekong River, mostly in Laos. At least 27 more could begin construction between 2015 and 2030. The PNAS study found that “the completion of 78 dams on tributaries, which have not previously been subject to strategic analysis, would have catastrophic impacts on fish productivity and biodiversity.” Many of these dams are not being discussed or monitored at the regional level.

89 dams appear, 100 fish species disappear

The Mekong River Basin is home to 65 million people. Dr. Guy Ziv, the lead author of the PNAS study and an environmental scientist now at Stanford University, told Nature that “Most of the people are poor and get 81% of their protein from subsistence fisheries.” As a result, the fates of the Mekong’s fish and people are closely intertwined. The study warned that if all of the proposed dams are built, fish productivity would drop by 51% and 100 fish species would become critically endangered.

Ziv and his colleagues highlighted the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia, which will soon begin construction. The dam will block fish migrations on two of the major tributaries of the Mekong River, the Sesan and Srepok rivers. The impacts will likely be more serious than some of the dams proposed for the mainstream river. The PNAS study found that the Lower Sesan 2 Dam alone would cause a 9.3% drop in fish biomass for the entire river basin. Projects like this are not just a local concern, but a regional concern.

Mekong River Commission begins to crumble

Until recently, many of us hoped that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) would resolve regional crises such as these. The MRC was created in a 1995 treaty between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam with the goal of managing development of the river basin in a sustainable way. The MRC brings together these four governments to jointly decide which development projects should go forward in the river basin.

The past year, however, has revealed glaring holes in the ability of the MRC to make decisions. Legally the four governments must agree on any dams that would be built on the Mekong River. However, the four governments only have to notify one another if they plan to build a dam on a tributary, even if that dam has transboundary impacts. The MRC process has not even worked smoothly for projects on the mainstream Mekong River, where the governments are legally required to reach agreement. In the case of the Xayaburi Dam, for example, Laos and Thailand have defied the regional process and proceeded with preliminary construction although an agreement is not yet in place.

Fixing a collapsing system

So where do we go from here? The obvious solution is to fill the gaps in the MRC’s procedures, but this depends on the political will of the four governments and MRC’s donors. If the MRC cannot be fixed, then it is time to look to other regional bodies to fill in the gaps.

“Food security” is not an empty phrase. Threats to food security are also threats to the region’s economic and political stability, as well as to the basic human rights of millions of people. If this is not enough to motivate the region’s politicians to call for drastic reform, then the Mekong is in serious trouble.

More information: 

See Ziv et al. (2012), Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 5 March 2012.

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