FOREWORD: This is the second of three articles entitled “A Look Forward
into the Next Half Century” discussing the prospects confronting the Mekong
Delta. The first article offers an overview of the situation with this main
conclusion: the governments of the countries bordering the Mekong are still
convinced that hydropower remains the least expensive source of energy to sustain
their nations’ pace of economic development. Sooner or later, the exploitation
of the hydropower potentials of the Mekong will prove to be an irreversible
process that will forge ahead over the last half of this century regardless
of the impacts that may be brought to bear on the eco-system of the Mekong,
particularly of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The readers should be reminded of this historical fact: it is the Vietnamese
Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Nguyen Manh Cam, who signed the Agreement to
establish the Mekong River Commission in 1995. This Agreement contains a fundamental
change that robs the member countries of their power to “veto” any projects
they deem detrimental to the river or to the neighboring states. More than once,
the author has expressed his reservations on this issue and emphasized that
Vietnam has committed a strategic mistake when it agreed to this change because
this country lies at the southern end of the river.
In the face of overwhelming pressure from the member nations in the Lower
Mekong Basin, and from the international community, the government of Laos has
consented to suspend for the moment the construction of the hydroelectric dam
Xayaburi (1,260 MW). This dam is the first of the nine Laos plans to build on
the main current of the Mekong. The Laos government’s decision is hailed as
a “victory” by the International Rivers Network (IRN) and other environmental
activists despite the fact it is only temporary in nature.
China built two dams upstream the Mekong: the Xiaowan (4,500 MW) and Nuozhadu
(5,850 MW). Each of them boasts individual outputs that are approximately five
times that of the Xayaburi dam. The Xiaowan’s reservoir alone reports a capacity
that is greater than those of the 11 other dams combined. In spite of those
worrisome statistics and in total disregard to oppositions from the world’s
public opinion, China shows no sign of relenting on its efforts to exploit the
hydroelectric potentials of the Mekong. The difference, here, is glaring: China,
a big country that aspires to become a superpower, can behave with the dictum
“might makes right” while Laos, a poor and small nation that depends on outside
aids must be responsive to foreign powers in the implementation of its projects
Vietnam may be the nation on record that raised the strongest objections against
the Xayaburi project. If so, it would find itself in an awkward position to
justify the participation of its state-owned company Petrovietnam Power Company
in the construction of the hydroelectric dam on the Mekong’s main current named
Luang Prabang (1,410 MW) which is larger than the Xayaburi dam. For the “Spirit
of the Mekong” to become a reality, it is imperative that Vietnam desists from
adhering to such “double standard”.
EVALUATION OF A SHORT-TERM POLICY
Granted that the exploitation of the Mekong’s potentials for hydroelectricity
is almost an irreversible process, we still have the right and duty to demand
transparency and reliability in the assessments of ecological impacts to ensure
a policy of sustainable development.
We do need time to mount advocacy campaigns not only at the regional but also
at the global levels. The pro-active experience with the Xayaburi Dam represents
a welcome lesson for all. At the same time, we cannot overlook the peculiarities
that apply mainly to Laos’ case. It would be hard to imagine that a postponement
could be achieved if instead of the Xayaburi Dam and the Vientiane government,
we have to deal with the Sambor and Stung Treng Dams and the Prime Minister
of Cambodia, Mr. Hun Sen, who persistently argues that carbon dioxide emission
and climate change are the real culprits not the hydroelectric dams in China.
EVALUATION OF A LONG-TERM POLICY
The following accumulative impacts are posing a threat to the Mekong Delta:
Figure 1: Mekong Delta zones below mean sea level (in violet)
- The hydroelectric dams built upstream; in particular the ones in the series
of the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan, China; and their mammoth reservoirs are reducing
the water and the alluvium flow to the Mekong Delta. On top of that, the cutting
down of mangrove forests, those natural barriers against seawater intrusion,
brought about salinization in a good part of the basin in the South of Vietnam
and soil erosions at the Ca Mau Peninsula.
- Global warming resulting from the emission of carbon dioxide from the burning
of coal and oil causes the melting of glaciers at the North and South Poles
as well as the Tibetan Highland also known as the Third Pole. Consequently,
we are now witnessing a rise in the sea level. Scientists studying climate changes
estimated that the sea level could rise from 0.80 meter to 1.5 meters by the
year 2100. Should the sea level rise by only 1 meter, then, 75% of the Mekong
Delta will be submerged under the water. [Figure 1]
Confronted with the prospect of a Mekong Delta, the traditional rice bowl of
the entire country, being threatened by a penury of fresh water, soil erosion,
and seawater intrusion; Vietnam has no other alternative but implement a mega-project
that calls for the construction of: 1) a multi-purpose dyke to prevent seawater
intrusion and 2) two fresh water reservoirs in the natural depressions at Dong
Thap Muoi and Dong Ca Mau.
This second article has the main objective of presenting the major outlines
of the Multi-Purpose Sea Dyke Project for the Mekong Delta. The idea is still
in its conceptual phase and technical studies are being done jointly by Ngo
Minh Triet, P.E., structural engineer and Pham Phan Long, P.E., of the Friends
of the Mekong Group. Pham is also a founding member of the Viet Ecology Foundation.
THE OBJECTIVES OF THE MULTI-PURPOSE SEA DYKE
As implied by its name, the main objective of the sea dyke is to prevent salinization
resulting from a rise in the sea level coupled with a diminishing “minimum current
flow” running down from upstream the Mekong to its Delta.
The strategic implications and long-term benefits to be derived from this
project are manifold. They include: (1) prevention of salt intrusion and preservation
of the eco-system in the Mekong Delta; (2) ability to control floods and droughts
and solve the problem of fresh water shortage; (3) revitalization of the economic
production in the basin by providing a strategic highway system along the coast;
(4) raising the quality of life for the Mekong Delta’s inhabitants in regards
to its cultural, educational, and health aspects which are sliding down the
dangerous road of degradation.
The immediate advantages are: considering that the dyke system is not located
on land but offshore, no acquisition of private land is required and no opposition
from the displaced population is to be expected. By the same token, since the
proposed dyke is situated from 3 to 5 kilometers off the coastlines, there would
be numerous reservoirs built in the buffer zone between the dyke and natural
coastlines. With time, rain water combined with the fresh water flowing down
from the rivers will help reduce the salinity of the water in those reservoirs.
The resulting brackish water will allow for the raising of aquatic crops like
sea crabs, shrimps and bring in a substantial source of revenue.
The sea dyke will prevent soil erosions and help in the land conservation
efforts. In addition, it will introduce a land reclamation program adding new
land for farming and opportunities to build new cities. This must be regarded
as one of the major returns on the substantial initial investment cost of the
The sea dyke will also serve as a beltway of the Mekong Delta. In engineer
Ngo Minh Triet’s calculation, the dyke’s surface may measure up to 24 meters
wide – large enough to construct a two-way highway which is indispensable for
the maintenance of the dyke. Moreover, it also holds strategic implications
in matters of transportation, economics and defense - especially at this time
when the East Sea is in turmoil due to the ongoing conflict between China, the
giant in the north, and its Southeast Asian neighbors. [Figure 2]
Figure 2: Proposed 600 km Mekong Sea Dyke (broken blue line); sea depths 10m, 20m (yellow lines)
Experts in renewable energy believe that wind or sun are abundant along the
sea dyke and can be harnessed.
Valuable real estate developments can also be possible along the sea dyke. Another
source of considerable revenue that should not be overlooked is the development
of ecotourism offering land sports like biking… or water sports like waterskiing,
boat racing, fishing.... the primary goal is to attract foreign tourists to
the region and improve the cultural and material life of the inhabitants of
the Mekong Delta who greatly deserve it.