Are the Mekong River dams double-edged swords? | MNN


The Mekong is without doubt one of the most famous rivers on Earth. To geography buffs and Nat Geo readers, it’s on par with the Nile, the Amazon and the Mississippi. To the individuals who reside alongside its banks, the Mekong is a supply of meals, a superhighway, a laundry room and a yard. By some estimates, as many as 240 million people make their living directly or indirectly from the river

In main cities like Bangkok, the river is changing into vital not for its provide of fish or for the paddies on its banks however as a supply of vitality. A hydroelectric increase has come to Southeast Asia and the Mekong is its epicenter.

Shoppers inside the Siam Paragon mall

Buyers journey across the Siam Paragon mall. The underside flooring, with the blue carpeting, is the doorway to the mall’s Sea Life Bangkok Ocean World attraction. (Photograph: charnsitr/Shutterstock)

A brand new supply of fresh vitality   

On one hand, hydroelectricity seems like the holy grail of renewable energy, particularly in locations the place air pollution is an issue. So long as the river the place the hydroelectric dams are positioned retains flowing, there’s a limiteless provide of fresh vitality. 

The advantages of hydroelectricity are greatest felt in Bangkok’s massive shopping malls. Also known as the most well liked metropolis on Earth, Thailand’s crowded capital metropolis is full of retail emporiums. On one stretch of the primary avenue, Sukhumvit Street, there aren’t any fewer than six malls inside three miles. Individuals come to those locations to buy, however additionally they come to spend the center of the day in air-conditioned consolation whereas the tropical temperature hits triple digits exterior. 

Due to this want for synthetic cool, some of these malls consume more energy than entire towns. The glitzy Siam Paragon (above), for instance, eats up twice as a lot energy because the Thai mountain hub of Mae Hong San. Whether or not or not you see these malls as overly decadent in a rustic that’s nonetheless creating economically, there is no such thing as a denying that having a renewable supply of vitality to energy them is significantly better than counting on pure gasoline or another kind of non-sustainable energy supply. 

A fisherman heads home along the Mekong River in Kampong Cham, Cambodia

A fisherman heads dwelling alongside the Mekong River in  Kampong Cham, Cambodia. (Photograph: Julia Maudlin/flickr)

The 2 faces of hydro energy

The hydroelectric dams that give Bangkok’s malls their juice are good for air pollution, international warming and different “huge image” environmental points. In underdeveloped international locations like Laos, the place the dams utilized by Thailand are positioned, the development and operation is a boon for the native economic system. 

However these dams deliver up a serious contradiction: they’re without delay good for the setting and liable for destroying it. These constructions change the circulate of the river. This could impede the motion of wildlife, and disrupt the ecosystems that individuals and animals have relied on for hundreds of years. 

The Mekong has legendary qualities. Lengthy after conventional life disappeared in different components of the area, individuals have been nonetheless dwelling a subsistence way of life right here, fishing and farming the riverside flood plains. In some locations there aren’t any roads in any respect as a result of individuals have at all times traveled everywhere by boat. The river nonetheless has prehistoric-size catfish — averaging a number of hundred kilos — and freshwater dolphins.

Men bathe in the Mekong River along the shores of Vietntiane, Laos

The Mekong River in Vientiane, Laos. Within the higher proper of the photograph, males will be seen bathing within the river.  (Photograph: Davidlohr Bueso/flickr)

River life is altering

The pure vitamins within the river have made this a prolific space for agriculture for the reason that starting of civilization. Blocking these pure sediments from flowing downstream might have a serious impression on farming and fishing and, due to this fact, on the area’s meals provide. This could first have an effect on the subsistence-level river folk, however it might ultimately problem your complete area’s meals safety. 

Dams additionally trigger human displacement. The construction of those electricity-makers signifies that a reservoir needs to be create upstream. This typically signifies that inhabited areas have to be flooded. That is the side of damming that creates the necessity for individuals, typically complete cities, to be relocated. Sarcastically, the individuals who will ultimately be relocated from their bank-side houses typically are those who’re employed to construct the dams. 

A man fishes in the Mekong River in Laos

A person fishes within the Mekong River in Laos. (Photograph: Rob Young/flickr)

Extra dams are coming

A lot of dam tasks are in the works along the Lower Mekong. Dozens extra are both deliberate or already beneath development on the river’s many tributaries. And that is solely on the decrease reaches of the river. China has already constructed seven dams within the Higher Mekong area, and over a dozen more are in various stages of development

Why a lot curiosity in dams? It’s a query of economics. Main dam tasks herald international direct funding and create jobs within the quick time period, so they’re well-liked with each native individuals (despite the fact that some will ultimately should relocate) and with the federal government. A lot of the funding can come from exterior, however the earnings stream for the nation can be steady as soon as the electrical energy begins flowing. Laos and Cambodia, the place there are at the moment 11 Decrease Mekong dams are beneath development, will use only a small percentage of the power produced. A lot of the electrical energy can be exported to Vietnam and Thailand, the place there’s a nice demand.  

From the “fast cash” and financial stimulation standpoint, there’s no drawback to these large dam projects. Wind, photo voltaic or smaller-scale hydroelectric choices don’t provide as many financial incentives up entrance. It stays to be seen if cleaner, fossil-fuel-free air is well worth the adjustments that may inevitably come to the Mekong’s fisheries and agriculture business.

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