First ever bank conference to discuss lower Mekong dams

Financial institutions must play a more active role in promoting sustainable hydropower development in the lower Mekong river basin, says WWF.

On September 24th in Bangkok, Thailand, leading US, European and Asian financial institutions will attend a conference co-convened by WWF and other development partners to highlight the financial, social and environmental risks and responsibilities of hydropower development on the lower Mekong River. The meeting will also explore ways to understand and mitigate these risks.

“It is a missed opportunity,” said Marc Goichot, Sustainable Infrastructure Senior Advisor for WWF Greater Mekong. “Lower Mekong dam sites were selected in the 1960’s and there has not been a process to review them with the benefit of today’s science and technology.”

Currently, there are 11 hydropower dams proposed for the lower Mekong River, which runs through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. If the one of these dams is built it will break the lower Mekong’s ecosystem connectivity, which can have a cascade of negative impacts.

“Putting a dam on the lower Mekong River will block fish migration to spawning grounds, collapsing fish stocks,” said Michael Simon, Lead of the People Infrastructure and Environment Program, Oxfam Australia. “Do lenders want to be associated with putting the food security of 60 million people in some of the world’s poorest countries at risk?”

Forecasts show the productivity of lower Mekong fisheries, which are valued up to US$7 billion annually, would be reduced by up to 70 percent by lower Mekong mainstream dams. In addition, iconic species such as the Mekong giant catfish and Mekong dolphin would likely face extinction if the proposed dams go ahead.

“Hydropower projects can limit their impact to ecosystem connectivity. For example, a large dam can be built in the floodplain beside a river channel rather than across it, or a hydropower project can have no dam at all,” said Mr Goichot.

In southern Laos, there is such an alternative being proposed by the Lao Department of Electricity and semi-state owned French company CNR (Compagnie Nationale du Rhone).
The proposed Thakho project is adjacent to the Mekong river at the pristine Khone Phapeng waterfalls, an epicentre for tourism in Laos. It works by diverting some water from the Mekong mainstream into a channel where it passes through turbines and back in to the Mekong down stream.

This project has no dam and does not break ecosystem connectivity, allowing for sediment to flow downstream and fish to migrate upstream. Its integrated design also allows for sustainable tourism development.

“Financial institutions are being held accountable by shareholders and the public for the financing decisions they are making. Investing in unsustainable projects is risky to reputations and bottom lines,” said Jérôme Bertrand-Hardy, Deputy Chief Investment Officer at Proparco. “By better managing social and environmental risks, banks can better secure their investment.”

WWF supports a ten-year delay in the approval of lower Mekong river mainstream dams to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all the impacts of their construction and operation. Immediate electricity demands can be met by fast tracking the most sustainable hydropower sites on the lower Mekong’s tributaries.

“Allowing time for innovative technologies and science to inform the lower Mekong river basin’s development plans creates a win-win situation for all parties involved,” said Mr Goichot.

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