Amid an ongoing drought and low water levels, the state of the Mekong River is a topic that is animating discussion along the watercourse, with sights often aimed squarely at the Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Plant. To help clear the waters, the project owners invited regional media for a site visit.
Climate change, water usage, livelihoods, human safety, bio-diversity, and increased hydro-industrialization are issues drawing increased attention to the state of the river and wider ecosystems in the basin amid dryer conditions.
As water levels dip downstream in these dry months, those affected and concerned naturally cast their attention upstream for answers, with the calls for answers increasing in volume and urgency.
Perhaps the most high-profile of the developments on the lower Mekong is the Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Project (Xayaburi HPP), operated by the Xayaburi Power Company Limited (XPCL).
As the first hydropower development on the lower Mekong mainstream (outside of China) and with a major cross-border investment from neighboring Thailand, the project is among the better-known hydropower projects that have been developed and implemented in Laos.
Several months ago, the Xayaburi HPP was partly blamed for the low levels of water downstream by officials in Thailand, a claim denied by the dam’s operators.
Is the Xayaburi dam storing the waters of the Mekong River?
Media reporting based on accounts by NGOs and some communities has given the impression that the storing of water by the Xayaburi hydropower project is contributing to, if not causing, the dry conditions downstream. It’s also a notion that the Lao Government and Xayaburi operators are keen to dispel.
To that end, a site visit was held for stakeholders and media personnel with the cooperation of the Lao Ministry of Energy and Mines and the Lao National Mekong Committee Secretariat, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
“The Xayaburi Hydroelectric Power Project is a run-of-river power plant. The total outflow of water that goes through the power plant equals the natural inflow of water, and no water is stored or channeled away from the Mekong River,” says a Xayaburi project technical expert.
“Thus the water volume which passes through the project is naturally maintained. As no large reservoir is created as in storage type plants with high dams, the run-of-river barrage will maintain the upstream reservoir at a constant, slightly higher level. Downstream of the barrage, the water will remain at its natural level.”
The message is not new but is one the project’s operators are keen to share even more widely as the impact of a long drought is felt not least by those who rely on farming and fishing for their livelihoods.
It is also a message that authorities and developers wish to convey about run-of-river technology in general, as additional such power plants are proposed on the Mekong’s mainstream in Luang Prabang and Pak Beng.
XPCL points to monitoring data that shows inflows and outflows of water fluctuating synchronously over a 24-hour period.
Does the imposition of a hydroelectric power station in the middle of a river cause some disruption to the natural course and the lifestyles of those who have long lived by its banks? The short answer is yes but the degree to which it does so is debatable and hard to measure.
The combined impact of all projects is even harder to evaluate, a challenge made more difficult when factoring in climate change across the basin.
“We hope the visit by stakeholders would allow them to see the project with their own eyes and have better information about its operations and efforts the Lao Government and the developer implement to minimize and mitigate potential negative impacts,” said Anoulak Kittikhoun, the official in charge of strategy, cooperation, and communication at the MRC.
The Mekong River Commission, headquartered in Vientiane, worked with member states Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam to facilitate the prior consultation process for the Xayaburi project, and is often credited with improving the design of the mitigation measures by the company.
Meanwhile, Xayaburi’s operators point to their project as technologically advanced and an model of best practices in hydroelectric power generation in the basin, having worked with the Lao government and the MRC on an Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), a Social Impact Assessment (SIA), an Environmental Management Plan (EMP), and a Resettlement Action Plan (RAP).
The project proudly promotes its state-of-the-art technological innovations to prevent and minimize environmental and social risks that include fishery resources conservation, sediment routing, and navigation passage.
The result is the world’s largest system of fish passes, with multiple attraction flows, permitting fish the opportunity to move up and downstream in a bid to protect the populations of the hundreds of species native to the Mekong. Data from this system is being collected and analyzed with the help of researchers from Australia’s Charles Sturt University over the long term to understand its impact. In a bid to develop sustainably and transparently, the Lao Government also allows the MRC to conduct “joint environment monitoring” of dam impacts in order to provide recommendations for adaptive management.
When it comes to the many aspects of the changing face of the Mekong, it is clear that rigorous scientific approaches, data collection, and information sharing among stakeholders are more necessary than ever.
How can hydro-industrialization be managed sustainably on the Mekong?
This is a critical, multifaceted question for researchers to study, commentators to consider, stakeholders to influence, operators and regulators to ensure, and policymakers to manage in the years ahead. But are these questions worth dedicating the efforts required to find the answers to? A certain yes.
According to the available evidence, can the Xayaburi hydropower project be considered the causal factor in the low downstream river levels we are seeing right now?
Due to the fact that Xayaburi HPP employs a run-of-river type installation, this necessarily invalidates the claim that the dam is storing water, which would lead to low water levels. Coupled with the reasonable assumption that the Mekong drought has causes that are probably multivariate in nature, the evidence appears to suggest that the Xayaburi HPP is most definitely not the cause of the low levels of the Mekong.
Furthermore, Xayaburi HPP’s senior management cites robust historical data to support the claim that water inflow is expected to reach average levels in the Mekong during this year’s rainy season, beginning in May 2020.