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Dams Threaten Mekong Basin Food Supply

BANGKOK, Jun 20 2013 (IPS) - The future of food security in the Mekong region lies at a crossroads, as several development ventures, including the Xayaburi Hydropower Project, threaten to alter fish migration routes, disrupt the flow of sediments and nutrients downstream, and endanger millions whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong River basin’s resources.

Running through China, Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, Thailand and Cambodia to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, this is Asia’s seventh longest transboundary river.

An estimated 60 million people live within the lush river basin, and nearly 80 percent depend on the Lower Mekong’s waters and intricate network of tributaries as a major source of food.

But if all goes according to plan, 88 dams will obstruct the river’s natural course by 2030. Seven have already been completed in the Upper Mekong basin in China, with an estimated twenty more either planned or underway in the northwest Qinghai province, the southwestern region of Yunnan and Tibet.

Construction of the 3.5-billion-dollar Xayaburi Dam on the Lower Mekong in northern Laos is the first of eleven planned dam projects on the main stem of the Mekong River, with nine allocated for Laos and two in Cambodia.

At best these development projects will alter the traditional patterns of life here; at worst, they will devastate ecosystems that have thrived for centuries.

Over 850 freshwater fish species call the Mekong home, and several times a year this rich water channel is transformed into a major migration route, with one third of the species travelling over 1,000 kilometres to feed and breed, making the Mekong River basin one of the world’s most productive inland fisheries.

Large-scale water infrastructure development projects such as hydropower dams have already damaged the floodplains in the Lower Mekong and in the Tonlé Sap Lake in Cambodia, affecting water quality and quantity, lowering aquatic productivity, causing agricultural land loss and a 42-percent decline in fish supplies.

This spells danger in a region where fish accounts for 50 to 80 percent of daily consumption and micronutrient intake, Ame Trandem, Southeast Asia programme director for the non-profit International Rivers, told IPS.

If all the dams are built, experts estimate that 220,000 to 440,000 tonnes of white fish would disappear from the local diet, causing hunger and leading to a rapid decline in rice production.

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