Vietnam: Climate change, dams will drastically impact Mekong region
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Vietnam: Climate change, dams will drastically impact Mekong region

THE millions of people who depend on the Mekong River for survival are at risk due to the twin threats of climate change and hydroelectric power plants. While the latter is often seen as part of the solution to the former, in this case hydroelectricity may, in fact, be a more urgent threat.

When economic development and competition hurt prosperity

Plans to construct 11 dams on the lower portion of the massive Southeast Asian waterway have been criticized in a study by Danish water and environmental researchers DHI. The study was commissioned by Vietnam and submitted to the Mekong River Commission, which also includes Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

The study highlights the severe economic and environmental costs of the 11 dams, the construction of which is mostly supported by Laos.

From the Associated Press:

It predicts annual fishery and farming losses of US$760 million in Vietnam and US$450 million in Cambodia. Fish catches would drop by 50 percent for Vietnam and Cambodia, and 10 percent of the delta’s fish species would either disappear from the region or become extinct.

Back in 2012, there were similar warnings from environmentalists and even the government of the United States against construction in Laos of the US$3.5 billion Xayaburi Dam, a project with the aim of generating electricity to sell to Thailand. The project went ahead despite scientists’ warnings that dams are the largest threat to the Mekong’s fisheries and exacerbate the effects of climate change.

The Mekong is one of the world’s largest fisheries and largest source of freshwater fish, according to the Mekong River Commission. In addition to the Xayaburi on the Lower Mekong and several Chinese hydropower plants on the Upper Mekong, additional dams in Laos and Cambodia, together with increasing overfishing, could wreak havoc on the economies of Vietnam and Cambodia. It seems Vietnam’s plans for its marine economy to make up the majority of its GDP and exports by 2020 could be foiled by fellow Mekong nations.

And then there’s the climate

Central and southern Vietnam are currently in the throes of a water crisis, with some 1.5 million people facing an acute shortage of drinking water, according to the United Nations. Experts put the blame on how climate change is extending the El Niño phenomenon. Intensive farming, deforestation and Chinese hydroelectric plants on the Upper Mekong have also been attributed as factors contributing to the drought.

Meanwhile, meadow and forest fires have been plaguing southern Vietnam. Currently, more than 100 thousand acres are dried up and at risk of catching fire.

A worsening diet

A recent study on climate change and global food production singles out the region of Southeast Asia as a region at risk of mass death due to dietary shifts.

Published in the Lancet, the study predicts 529,000 additional deaths by 2050 due to changes in diet resulting from climate change, mostly in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific region. Changes in temperature will affect what kinds of foods can be grown, meaning poorer people will end up eating less red meat and less water-intensive fruits and vegetables. The reduction in fruit and vegetable consumption and its replacement with potatoes and rice, which have less nutrition, will be the major factor in these “extra deaths”.