To the Friends of the Mekong Group
“Water has become expensive, and it will be even more expensive in the
future, which will make it the ‘Blue Gold’ of the 21st century”.
Ricardo Petrella, 3/2000_ The New “Conquest of Water”
HALF A BILLION PEOPLE ON THIS PLANET
A decade ago, the World Commission on Dams (WCD) published a research on the
impacts of big dams on human development for worldwide distribution.
This year (2010), Water Alternatives, an independent academic on-line journal
staffed with researchers and editors, has conducted an evaluation of the works
done by WCD. Its aim is to determine the extents of the impacts the big dams
have exerted on the ecology, socio-economic milieu, and living conditions of
the inhabitants along the banks of the rivers in question.
The scope of this study is not limited to the people who resided in the vicinity
of the dams and became victims of forced relocation. It also covers the communities
that dwelled downstream the 120 rivers that flow through 70 countries of the
According to Brian Richner, Director of the Nature Conservancy Program and
leader of the study group, there are approximately half a billion souls (472
million) - 85% of them in Asia - who live downstream those rivers. These unfortunate
people will have to bear the brunt of the dreadful effects brought about by
those mammoth dams - be it degradation of the ecology, deforestation, depletion
of fish source and reduction of grazing grounds for cattle raising… A case in
point: if we remove the urban population from the picture, the remaining more
than 40 million people - mostly farmers and fishermen - still have to depend
on the life-giving water of the Mekong to till their rice fields or catch the
fish which represent their main source of protein.
China is the birthplace of many rivers. By now, most people have become familiar
with the argument that this country puts forth about the benefits emanating
from its dams such as electricity generation, flood control, and water irrigation
for farming. On the other hand, China fails to mention the negative and long-term
impacts that its dams visited on the ecology, environment, and life of the people
living down the river.
A study done by Water Alternatives (June 3, 2010) shows that there was an
upsurge in the number of big dams’ construction in the world: from 5,000 in
1950 to 50,000 currently. Brazil, the country of soccer, single handedly reported
1,700 new projects for dam building.
Again, in Brian Richner’s view, at a time when dam construction fever reaches
its apogee all over the world, we must show more proof of good judgment and
prudence right from the inception of the projects to their operational procedures
in order to minimize their harmful impacts on human life and the ecology. 
For instance, one must ensure that “the dam will release enough water downstream
to sustain [the survival of the] species” as well as maintain the river’s natural
flow and conserve the ecology.
Writer’s comments: the above expectation amounts
to wishful thinking if not in itself a paradox considering the “conflict of
interests” between the affected countries and the companies that own the dams.
For instance, due to a severe water shortage during the recent drought, operators
of the dams in Yunnan found it difficult to run their turbines while at the
same time maintain a steady supply of electricity to the fast developing industrial
zones in the Southwest of China. Under those extreme conditions, it would be
clearly “unrealistic” to expect the Chinese to release out of “voluntary kindness
and selfless compassion” the already scarce water in their dams’ reservoirs
to save the rivers downstream from being drained dry.
THE DAMS ON THE LANCANG JIANG - MEKONG
GMS _ Greater Mekong Subregion
Drainage area: 795,000 Km2
Length of mainstream: 4,400 Km
Average discharge: 15,000 m3/sec
[ Source: Mekong River Commission ]
Based on the forecast of the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP), the population
in the Lower Mekong will total 90 million in 2025. One third of them will make
their home in urban areas. The rest - mostly farmers and fishermen - will settle
along the riverbanks. Those people will directly suffer from the accumulative
and nefarious impacts caused by the dams in Yunnan.
To assuage the thirst for energy of its fast growing industrial development,
China will continue to build dams in the Mekong Cascades regardless of the socio-economic
and ecological price incurred by the nations downstream.
To this day (2010), there exist three dams which are operating at full capacity:
Manwan (1,500MW), Daichaosan (1,350 MW), and Jinghong (1,350 MW). The fourth
one, Xiaowan (4,200 MW) measuring 292 meters in height is the tallest in the
world. With an area of 190 square kilometers and a capacity of 15 billion cubic
meters, it ranks second largest after the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.
Beginning in 2009, water from the Mekong has been diverted to the Xiaowan Dam
and this process is expected to go on for four years (until 2012) before the
planned water level could be reached. However, the first generator began to
produce electricity as of September 25, 2009. In a statement attributed to Mr.
Wang Yongxiang, General Manager of the Hydrolancang Company, there are presently
three more dams under construction in the 14 dam series of the Mekong Cascades
in Yunnan. 
Not content with building dams on the sections of the Mekong that courses
through Yunnan Province, China also controls the construction projects for the
dams downstream in Laos: Pak Beng (1,320 MW), Pak Lay (1,320 MW), Sanakham (1,000
MW); and in Cambodia: Sambor (2,600 MW) which is bigger than the Manwan Dam
in Yunnan (1,500 MW) and bears a price tag of $US 5 billion.
Along with the dam projects downstream, the Sambor and Don Sahong Dams act
as barriers preventing the migratory fishes in Cambodia from swimming upstream
and also threatening the existence of the two famous and endangered species
of the river: the Mekong Giant Catfish [Pla Beuk] - well known as a long-distance
migratory fish - and the Irrawaddy dolphins that always need deep holes to survive
in the Dry Season.