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The Push and Pull for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia

The Push and Pull for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia

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Published by The Wilson Center
This new research brief analyzes the short- and long-term impact of hydropower development in Vietnam and Cambodia, and its relationship with China.
This new research brief analyzes the short- and long-term impact of hydropower development in Vietnam and Cambodia, and its relationship with China.

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Published by: The Wilson Center on Jan 22, 2014
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03/30/2014

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The Push and Pull for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia 
 
n September 7 2012, the largest of the eight dams on the Chinese side of the Upper Mekong (Lancang) River came
online in Pu’er, Yunnan Province. The Nuozhadu hydroelectric station, Asia’s tallest dam, turned on the first of its nine
generating units that hopes to supply 23.9 billion kilowatts of energy by 2014.
1
 Two months later, Laos announced that it was going ahead  with the construction of the Xayaburi Dam and broke ground shortly thereafter, despite continued opposition from Cambodia and  Vietnam. Indeed, like falling dominos, dams are cascading down the Mekong River. Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia together have
O
THE PUSH AND PULL
for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia
by Catherine Beck
This research brief is port of the China  Environment Forum
 – 
 Circle of Blue joint
Global Choke Point
initiative, investigating water-energy nexus issues in China and other countries. The initiative, for three years, has been  supported by Skoll Global Threats Fund,  Energy Foundation China Sustainable  Energy Program, Rockefeller Brothers  Fund, U.S. Agency for International  Development, and Vermont Law School.
 
2
 
The Push and Pull for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia 
 
proposed a total of 12 dams on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong that threaten to irreparably harm the ecology of Southeast
 Asia’s most vital
river. Together, these twenty dams
 — 
all at various stages of planning, construction, or completion
 — 
are double-edged swords: offering the benefits of renewable electricity to rapidly developing nations but also threatening populations and the environment.
S
NAPSHOT OF
B
IG
H
 YDROPOWER IN  THE
M
EKONG
B
 ASIN
 
Six countries
 — 
Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar,  Thailand, and Vietnam
 — 
rely upon and share responsibility for the governance of the Mekong River
 — 
the tenth largest river in the world.  Approximately 65 million people depend on the resources that originate in the
river’s
 home of  Tibet, particularly those living furthest downstream
 — 
81 percent
of Cambodia’s
population lives in the Mekong basin and 24 percent
of Vietnam’s population lives in the
Mekong Delta.
2
 The transboundary nature of the river calls for a transnational approach to governance. Lower Mekong countries see hydropower not only as a source of their own electricity, but also an export commodity, the revenue of which can be used to reduce poverty, lower national debts, and achieve economic prosperity. But these countries face political, in addition to technical, challenges arising from this shared resource, especially as each of the involved countries have their own motives, potential gains and losses, and definitions of the needs and challenges to be addressed.
3
  To date, only five of the 20 mainstream dams have been completed, all within China. Apart from the mainstream dams, over 100 dams have been proposed within the Mekong basin, and only ten percent of the estimated hydroelectric potential of the Lower Mekong Basin has been developed. While China alone is financing and/or building 103 dams within Southeast Asia, the financing, construction, and maintenance of the 12 proposed, mainstream dams in the lower Mekong mainstream are set to come from a  variety of sources:
 
 Thailand (4 dams);
 
China (3-4 dams);
 
 Vietnam (1-2 dams);
 
Malaysia (1 dam); and,
 
France (2 dams).
4
 Despite the energy that could be generated by these dams, an estimated 2.1 million people living in the Mekong region are at risk of losing their fishing or agriculture-based livelihoods if all projected dam projects are completed.
5
  The Thai-financed Xayaburi dam in Laos is the first Mekong mainstream dam to begin construction outside of China. It has since become a source of regional tension. While it appeared that Laos was going to halt construction in November 2011
 — 
due to regional opposition, particularly from Cambodia and Vietnam
 — 
until further environmental impact assessments were conducted, as of November 2012, it has become clear that construction has continued and abandonment of the project was likely never seriously under consideration, as its Thai financiers had already sunk large sums of capital into the project.
E
NVIRONMENTAL
I
MPACT OF
H
 YDROPOWER
 Though hydropower has the potential to play an important role in the development of Southeast  Asia, the environmental consequences of hydropower threaten to undo any progress that hydropower brings. One such consequence is the loss of a vital resource of the river: silt. As the Mekong River finds its source in Tibet, China  wields great power over ultimate river flow to
downstream countries. China’s dams
regulate nearly 30 billion cubic meters (bcm) of water on the Mekong; however, it only recently began providing weekly flow data to downstream countries and only in 2010 shared drought
 
3
 
The Push and Pull for Hydropower in Vietnam and Cambodia 
 
information.
6
 Furthermore, China does not
provide notification regarding its “filling and spilling” activities. Historically, 50 percent
of the
river’s nutrient
-rich fine-grain sediment reached the Mekong Delta, but now Chinese dams will capture 80 percent of this sediment, significantly
reducing the Mekong Delta’s fertility, upon which
 Vietnam is reliant for 52 percent of its rice production.
7
 Many of the Mekong B
asin’s key ecosystems have
developed as a result of seasonal flow fluctuations.
8
 A large difference in wet and dry season flow has meant that farmers and fishermen, particularly those in Vietnam and Cambodia, have developed a system that complements the natural flows of the river. These flows, however, will now be disrupted by the dams. Dams additionally impede the migration of 87 percent of Lower Mekong migratory fish.
9
 Fisheries account for nearly 12 percent of Camb
odia’s GDP,
 while adding over $750 million
annually to Vietnam’s GDP, and supply up to 60
 percent of protein for local residents.
10
 The Mekong River Commission found that aquaculture and reservoir fisheries would be unable to compensate for the loss of wild fish production, meaning that planned hydropower development will seriously threaten food security in the region.
11
 Even worse, the impacts of climate change
 — 
low rainfalls and rising sea levels
 — 
 will further threaten the livelihoods of farmers and fishermen while impacting the effectiveness of hydropower.
12
 Besides dams on the main streams, tributary dams pose significant risks in part because they do not fall under the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which requires international consultations before construction begins, thus only requiring a notification to the MRC Joint Committee. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that construction of all 78 tributary dams would produce less energy and pose greater environmental risk than the construction of just the northern six mainstream dams on the lower Mekong.
13
 The study further found that fish productivity would drop by 51 percent if all proposed tributary dams are built, with the impacts of the Lower Sesan 2, which will soon begin construction in Cambodia by a Vietnamese SOE, likely being more serious than those posed by some of the mainstream dams.
14
 
E
NERGY
D
EVELOPMENT AND THE
OLE OF
H
 YDROPOWER IN
 V 
IETNAM  AND
C
 AMBODIA 
 
 Vietnam and Cambodia have proven themselves to be some of the fastest-growing Asian economies over the last 20 years. Vietnam has averaged a 7.2 percent GDP growth rate over the last two decades, propelling it to the status of a middle-income country. Meanwhile
Cambodia’s
fast economic growth has still yet to raise it out of its low-income country status. As a consequence of their brisk pace of development, both
countries’
 energy demands are increasing. To meet these demands, both Vietnam and Cambodia are exploring new sources of energy, including hydropower.
 Vietnam
’s Energy Surplus
 
 Vietnam’s energy production has consistently
outpaced consumption and nearly 100 percent of
 Vietnam’s population has access to electricity,
even though only 30 percent of its population lives in urban areas. Since 2004, following declines in its oil production
, the country’s primary source
of electricity has been natural gas (which supplied
43 percent of the country’s
electricity in 2009). Hydropower and coal provide the majority of the
remainder of Vietnam’s
electricity needs (36% and 18%, respectively, in 2009); however, the proportion of electricity obtained from hydropower has steadily declined since the mid-1990s.  Although Vietnam may consider itself the ultimate victim of mainstream Mekong hydropower development, it has also been behind the development of multiple destructive dams. In fact, Vietnam is currently exploring involvement
in one of Laos’ mainstream Mekong dams.
Furthermore, more than 30 hydropower projects

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