ICE Case Studies: Mekong River Dam
How can Thailand, a country faced with at least four major environmental concerns -- deforestation, wildlife destruction, water scarcity, and urban environmental quality -- afford to build another dam? Dam construction is supposedly driven by the imperative "to produce more electric power in order to raise the national standard of living to a level comparable to that of nations, like the United States, that already have their dams in place." However, the utility of building hydroelectric dams has been challenged on a number of grounds. First, they are extremely expensive. A dam proposed on the Mekong River bordering Thailand and Laos will cost $2.7 billion. This no small amount considering that Thailand's GNP stood at almost $70 billion and ranked 30th in the world. Second, coupled with deforestation, previous dams have adversely affected local climate conditions, soil fertility, and water and fishery resources. Third, in many countries the construction of hydroelectric dams has displaced people and altered local community life.
Since, the 1960s, the Mekong River basin, which spans China, Laos, Burma, Burma, and Vietnam, has been slated for development by a series of hydroelectric dams. In order to coordinate the transnational nature of this massive project, the United Nations established the Mekong Committee. The committee overseas all aspects of project planning and implementation. All told, some 100 hydroelectric dams have been proposed by the committee. As the 1990s appear to be the decade for Thai economic growth and rising energy needs, the utility of hydroelectric dams as component of economic growth must be reconsidered in relation to the environment.The construction of hydroelectric dams usually requires numerous international inputs. In Thailand, these include the financial, administrative, architectural, and engineering services. A French firm Sogreth recently designed a $120 million dam to be built at Pak Mong on the Mekong. Another foreign firm, the Australian owned Snowy Mountains Engineering Corporation, has designed the Nam Theum 2 dam to be built across a tributary of the Mekong in Laos. The $500 million project needs a reservoir of 300 square kilometers or larger to feed a 300 to 600 megawatt power plant. Besides services, high technology computers, generators, and control systems are frequently imported from more advanced nations like Japan and the United States. Ray Oram, the Mekong Committee's information officer, has therefore identified Sweden, Australia and Japan as the countries with the greatest potential role in supporting hydropower in the region as their economies stand to benefit from lucrative energy market in Thailand. Any large scale modernization project such as a dam has indirect relations to trade. Large development projects may generate additional "multiplier effects" by increasing the demand for infrastructural development as more roads, ports, electricity, and telecommunication facilities are required for the construction and maintenance of dams in isolated areas. Following construction, the continued need for machinery and qualified personnel to maintain the site may be met from overseas. This is especially relevant for Thailand when considering that there exists a massive shortage of indigenous engineers. Thus, the building of major hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River requires foreign inputs since many do not have the capacity nor the technical expertise to make the generators and other complex electrical-control systems. Moreover, Thailand's neighbors through which the Mekong river also flows are burdened with rising international debt and few export opportunities. Already, the tempting prospects of exporting electricity to energy- starved Thailand has led Burma and Laos to begin constructing dams along the Mekong river. Sadly though, hydroelectric dams can have devastating effects on the environment. On the advice of the World Bank and Mekong Committee, the Royal Thai Government began to see the ability to generate electricity as an essential element of the larger industrialization effort. The Choa Nem project, later renamed the Sri Nakarin Dam, was completed in the late 1970s under the supervision of Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand and the Asian Institute of Technology. When the local people found out about its proposed construction in 1973, they stood up to protest the threat to public safety and the potentially adverse environmental impact -- soil erosion, loss of wildlife, change in the water table, among others. In addition, the dam was to be located in the Kanchanaburi Province on a geographic fault line, a fact that could result in a major catastrophe should an earthquake occur. Similarly, risk associated with flooding and/or breakage remained high as the dam was built on porous limestone, which is water soluble. With the help of a public information campaign, the pressure to reconsider the dam mounted. A small group of university and Forestry Department Scientists spoke out against the dam. Also a group of non-governmental organizations and international environmental groups launched an international campaign to challenged the official environmental impact assessments. Moreover, local NGOs and student environmental groups opposed the construction on democratic grounds, arguing that local resources would be exploited for the benefit of a small group of elites. On the side favoring the dam were the Thai Military, the Electrical Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT), numerous Thai agencies, foreign lenders, and producers of parts for the dam. In 1973, the supporters produced a document--the environmental impact assessment (EIA)--that recommended the dam's construction. As the opposition's campaign mounted, the leader of EGAT agreed to meet with opponents in what was to be the only consultation. Although both parties agreed that the original EIA was useless, the second part was never made public. Construction pressed ahead and the dam was completed in the late 1970s. The Japanese corporation Mitsubishi provided almost all the parts and equipment. Furthermore, the World Bank and Japan's Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund supplied the initial long-terms loans to finance the dam. The environmental consequences of this dam are symptomatic of the larger problems facing dam construction world-wide. By flooding a large forested area to build up enough water to generate electricity the dam ruined local farmlands and required resettlement of some 4,000 families. Downstream at the estuary of the Mae Klong river, the reduced flow of water caused an intrusion of saline water wiping out farmland and ruining the fragile mangrove forests. In addition, the dam also hardened the soil on the river-banks by reducing the water flow. Coupled with the problems of deforestation in Thailand, successive droughts exacerbated the difficulties of farming the soil as infrequent rainfall from deforestation hardening the soil and pushed back the planting season from February to May. All told, the export crops produced downstream on coconut and lychee plantations were wiped out and farmers were forced to abandon their land because of accumulated saltiness. The connections between trade and environmental degradation in the case of dam construction has both direct and indirect effects on the environment. The environmental problems associated with dam construction can also combine with deforestation to produce even more problems. Dam construction usually requires foreign inputs in the form of services and goods. Yet, hydroelectric dams can be very detrimental to the local environment and may indirectly harm the prospects for other types of exports by degrading the natural resource base in this the freshwater supply. Moreover, dams help to dislocate rural populations who frequently protect the local resources. As with many of these development projects the refugees end up impoverished and landless. The story has repeated itself 26 times across Thailand.
In Thailand, some dams have been constructed and their danger assessed and made public; others have been postponed indefinitely. In other regions and other countries their construction continues unabated. Despite the almost universal problems associated with hydroelectric dams, especially in both developed and developed countries, there has yet to be any sort of international guidelines on their construction. No broad policy programs have been proposed to address the difficulties associated with hydroelectric dams.
China has constructed two dams uprivr on the Mekong (which they call the Lancang), at Dachaoshan and Manwan. China plans five more dams and nine on the Mekong's tributaries, in total exceeding the capacity of the Three Gorges dam (see THREEDAM case). These dams are meant to produce hydro-electric power, so long-term water diversion is unliekly. However, during periods of dam-filling has produced sverely reduced flows downstream. Vietnam fears that reduced water will cause the salt water to intrude further upstream, threatening rice production.
One reason for the rural development projects like the Nam Choan dam was the military's desire to extend its control to the old strong-hold of the Communist Party of Thailand. New government administrators and military committees were appointed as part of the effort to construct the dam.
Dams generate water to be used for production of the export agricultural products. The water from the reservoir can be fed into irrigation systems. However, the flooding of a reservoir may irreversibly change the ecosystem and water table downstream threatening other farmers. Also, the lack of water flowing downstream may increase the likihood that salt-levels increase downstream killing wild-life and habitats dependent on semi-annual silt deposits and freshwater.
Although Thailand uses its dams for local energy use, the potential for trade is enormous given the fact that Thailand imports much of its energy. As the economy grows other neighboring countries like Cambodia, Laos, and Burma may be tempted to export energy to Thailand. In 1989, Thailand's dams produced 4.5 billion Kilowatt hours and in 1982 the figure was 3.8 billion kilowatt hours. The world's net production of hydroelectric power was 2,144.8 billion kilowatt hours in 1991.
In addition, the items used to construct dams include a significant number of power generators and other electrical systems. Japan was particularly eager to export these products to Thailand in connection with the construction of dams. Unfortunately, data on the export of generators are unavailable. However, these parts are the most sophisticated and hence expensive parts of the construction, and therefore the amount of trade should be significant. Furthermore, international services rendered by consultants, bankers, engineers, and architects may also be brought into the planning stage and constitute an additional aspect of international product flows. Similarly, after completion these services and parts will be needed to maintain and upgrade the functioning of the dam.
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