The dolphins are in danger of disappearing forever. And with them will disappear so many of the eco-tourists who come to see them in this picturesque setting in Kratie, where the Mekong foams and glimmers between the rapids. “Tourism means survival for 600 families,” says Suk, adjusting his military tunic to emphasize the authority of his opinion. Every now and then environmentalist associations come to protest. They bring banners, slogans, songs and sweets with honey to distribute to tourists. But on the other side all is silent. Laos ignores any requests to modify the permit. At least in our case, the construction company also does not allow anyone to come closer to see what is happening. We had to launch a drone from the border and dodge the military to get a few exclusive images.
“If there is no hope for the Irrawaddy dolphin – it soon will become extinct – for the inhabitants the real problem is the fish that make up the primary source of survival in numerous communities,” says Suk. Environmentalists repeatedly underline this danger. One such environmentalist is Chhith Sam Ath, country director of the WWF, who calls out numerous scientific reports and impact assessments that “clearly show the dam will do untold damage to migrating fish, and will affect the food security of many fishermen south of the dam.” A report from the Mekong River Commission published in 2015 established that the completion of all 11 dams planned could wipe out half of all fish present today in the river. That’s especially true for large fish that may become totally extinct. Hundreds of thousands of inhabitants would lose the ability to fish from the river, which is a loss both of food for survival and employment. The damage to the development and social security in the country would be incalculable.
The level of the Mekong is at a record low, the lowest since measurements were first recorded hundreds of years ago. The dry season in 2017 promises to be even more severe than last year’s. Yet this report, which required over a month of work in the field, did not find any evidence that the dams will be closed or modified, as evidenced by the recent announcement that work will begin shortly on the Pak Beng dam in Laos. Although Bounnhang Vorachith’s government has shown willingness to incorporate some elements of sustainability into the Laos dams, today there is still not a comprehensive study on the impact of all 11 dams along the Mekong, together with the almost 28 dams on the Chinese territories along the Mekong. Almost all of the NGOs interviewed condemn the modifications made to the dams under construction as “insufficient and not based on solid research,” as well as “a condemnation for many indigenous populations living along the river.”
There are several external factors that should also be considered. The impacts of climate change are causing the glaciers in the Tibetan plateau to melt, which increases the intensity of rainfall fed to the river, says ISGS. Flooding will become more frequent in the wet season, and the dry season will bring water shortages. Such conditions will only exacerbate tensions over the water that the dam will remove from the river’s natural flow.
An additional factor is the isolationism of many governments in the region from the international community. According to Rémy Kinna, an analyst at Transboundary Water Law (TWL) Global Consulting, “to-date, Vietnam is the only state to have ratified the United Nations Watercourses Convention, a global legal mechanism to facilitate fair and sustainable management of transboundary freshwater lakes and rivers.
The absence of a common framework has made the states unwilling to negotiate politically, leaving technical and analytical issues in the hands of the Mekong River Commission, without any common decision-making power.
The region’s future remains uncertain. “Future water shortages threaten to slow down the key sector for alleviating poverty: agriculture,” explains Brahma Chellaney, a geopolitical analyst and author of the book Water: Asia’s New Battleground. “Water is increasingly becoming a determining factor in understanding whether states are moving towards cooperative development or to destrictive competition.” For Chellaney, China carries the greatest influence because China controls the Tibetan plateau, which is the primary source for Asian rivers, the Brahmaputra and the Ganges. China also supports hydroelectric development in Laos. “If these new developments on the Mekong bring water crises, as we have seen in the past, this will intensify the tensions between states. It can slow development, jeopardize food security, and trigger mass migration fro the worst affected areas. With Asia’s peace at risk, it is imperative to invest in institutional water cooperation that will reinforce work on transboundary water resources.”
Meanwhile, Je Sre sits in her village, hoeing the ground and waiting for the water to begin to rise. The neighbors are smoking on the stairs, while a father ceremonially pours water over his daughter’s head. The Buddhist monk who looks after the local pagoda peeps out. Pol Kong, he introduces himself. He gazes out into the distance at the river and shakes his head. “The dam builders have already built a new temple to seek Buddha’s favor. But Buddhism teaches that those who build badly will be born evil in the next life. If someone takes water from the fish, in the next life they will be a fish without water.”