Mekong pilot program to monitor impact of Lao dams on lower basin

By Sen    February 25, 2020 | 05:00 am PT
Mekong pilot program to monitor impact of Lao dams on lower basin
The Xayaburi dam in the lower Mekong River in Laos. Photo by CK Power/Handout via AFP.
Transboundary environmental impacts of Laos' Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams will be monitored under a two-year program following a call for more data transparency.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) said Monday the pilot program would allow stakeholders to identify practical adaptive management actions and initial measures to mitigate some of the potential impacts from the mainstream dams.

Joint Environment Monitoring of Mekong Mainstream Hydropower Projects (JEM) aims to "systematically collect, generate and share reliable and scientific data and information through a standardized basin wide joint environmental monitoring program on site-specific issues that have cross-national implications," said Dr. So Nam, chief environmental management officer at MRC.

The program brings together a diverse team consisting of dam developers, MRC technical specialists and those from lower Mekong countries Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.

Most funding for the program, more than $2 million, comes from German development agency Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), Sopeak Meas, MRC communication officer, said.

"Data collection will begin in a few months' time because field staff and specialists from member countries need training on how to collect info first," she told VnExpress International.

Relevant training started Tuesday. 

The program will run until 2021 and involve monitoring hydrology and hydraulics, sediment, water quality, aquatic ecology, a well as fish and fisheries.

Data collection equipment would be installed in at least three locations in each dam. There will be at least one monitoring site at the lower-reach.

Throughout the pilot program, reports will be released via MRC’s regional stakeholder forum, website and other communication channels, it was confirmed.

Findings will also be used to improve the JEM program itself.

The team will test out and refine proposed monitoring approaches and methodologies that could later be applied on a basin-wide scale and incorporated into MRC’s core monitoring work.

"With these preliminary findings, we will be able to understand the effectiveness of dam facilities, including fish passes and sediment flushing gates," Dr. So Nam indicated. 

It is unclear how effective fish migration data collection is at Xayaburi Dam, according to Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program and author of "Last Days of the Mighty Mekong."

Existing and proposed dams on the Mekong River in various countries, including the Xayaburi dam. Photo courtesy of International Rivers.

Existing and proposed dams on the Mekong River. Photo courtesy of International Rivers.

The lower Mekong river, which flows through Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam, is home to an extremely rich inland fisheries industry, boasting hundreds of species.

Xayaburi Dam uses sophisticated underwater cameras to count fish that pass through the fish pathway, Eyeler said, shedding light on fish movements throughout this part of the river.

"But the use of sophisticated tech doesn't necessarily translate into effective results. I'm not sure how fish that move through the fish elevator are counted. In fact, I'm puzzled at how the fish elevator actually works," he stated.

Xayaburi and Don Sahong are the first two dams along the lower Mekong in Lao PDR.

Xayaburi Dam was built by Ch. Karnchang, one of Thailand’s largest construction companies, in 2010. The 1,285-megawatt dam, located 150 km downstream of northern Luang Prabang, began commercial operation last October.

Don Sahong Dam, with a capacity of 260 megawatts, came online a month later. Work on the dam started in 2016 with 80 percent of investment from Malaysia’s Mega First company and 20 percent from Laos’ EDL-GEN public power company.

Kickoff of the pilot program followed government officials and experts urging the developer of Xayaburi Dam to share information on operations with lower Mekong countries in early February.

The group, including an official from the Cambodian government and energy experts from Vietnam and Thailand, called for data on water flow, sediment transport and fish migration to be shared at a visit to the dam facilitated by MRC and the Lao government.

During the six-month consultation process lead by MRC and throughout dam construction, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam and other stakeholders have called for a program to properly and systematically assess their impact once online.

Construction of dams along the Mekong River has been a source of intrigue for many experts and countries, including Vietnam.

Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam is home to 12 provinces with a combined population of 22 million.

Known as the rice bowl and aquaculture hub of Vietnam, it is critical to the food security of the country's 95 million people.

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