The Mekong River in Southeast Asia is experiencing low water levels and a change in color that is raising alarms among experts and residents along the river, who attribute the environmental changes to dams upstream — built to generate power.
Patrick Reed is professor of civil and environmental engineering and a faculty fellow at the Cornell Atkinson Center for Sustainability. He worked with the Cambodian government to explore alternative options for the Sambor dam, the largest, most potentially devastating dam currently planned along the Mekong. He says the river system faces detrimental threats from dams such as the Xayaburi in Laos.
“Current and potential future dams in the Mekong pose fundamental changes to the functioning of the river system’s natural processes and its long-term ability to sustain critical fisheries.
“The question of balancing economic benefits of additional power and environmental concerns is itself misleading. Unfortunately, we do not fully understand natural thresholds in these systems. For example, catastrophic changes in ecological systems are sometimes possible even with modest changes in natural sediments and nutrients.
“The long-term benefits of the river system, its ecological systems, and the ability to sustain fisheries are by their very nature less tangible than near-term power purchase agreements. Laos is not strongly benefiting from Xayaburi as compared to the financial backers of the project. If they want to continue their plan to be ‘the battery of Asia’ with hundreds of projects, the whole region faces severe and potentially irreversible risks.”