Scrap dam, avoid unmitigated disaster 


Mekong Delta fertility at risk, experts warn, as they reiterate calls to cancel plans to build the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

A farmer feeds his cows on a dry riverbank in the Mekong Delta. Environmentalists have called for the cancellation of the first dam planned on the lower reaches of the Mekong River, saying it would irreparably damage its biodiversity and affect millions of people who depend on it for their livelihood.

With less than a week to go before the Mekong River Commission’s Joint Committee makes a decision on a major hydropower dam on the river, environmentalists highlighted its infeasibility and called for its cancellation.

If built, the dam could perpetrate an ecological catastrophe, they said.

“Disruptions to fish migration and food supplies for millions in the Mekong basin are likely if the first mainstream dam on the lower Mekong is allowed to go ahead,” the WWF, one of the world’s largest independent conservation organizations, said in a statement released Thursday (April 14).

Expert analysis showed that the feasibility study and environmental impact assessment prepared for the Xayaburi hydropower dam in Laos failed to address key environmental risks, the WWF said.

The US$3.5 billion dam, to be built in northern Laos, would generate power mostly for sale to Thailand.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), which serves as an international advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, will meet in Vientiane from April 19 to 22 to reach a conclusion to the regional decision-making process, in which the four member governments are expected to make a decision over whether or not to build the proposed Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River.

Environmentalists say the dam would disrupt fish migrations, block nutrients downstream and even damage Vietnam’s rice basket by slowing the river’s flow, which sets off severe seawater intrusions into the Mekong Delta.

The plan for the first dam on the downstream region of the Mekong River that flows through the lowlands of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam has been controversial from the outset, with experts saying it could exacerbate impacts already caused by upstream dams built by China.

Environmental advocates have warned that the Xayaburi dam could open the way for 10 more dams being considered along the lower Mekong.

Through public consultation meetings organized by the MRC in January and February, government officials, academics and civil society in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia have consistently expressed concern over the dam’s impacts and the need for further studies to be done, she added.

In a WWF commissioned review – coordinated by the WorldFish Center with participation from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)  – researchers found that the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the proposed Xayaburi dam in Laos was “woefully inadequate and fell well below international standards” for such studies.

The review found that the EIA ignored published studies and relied heavily on “a very light field sampling” that captured less than a third of the biodiversity in the impact area.

Just five migratory species from a list compiled in 1994 were mentioned and just three of more than 28 studies of Mekong fish migration were referenced. In contrast, current studies show that 229 fish species exploit habitats upstream of the dam site for spawning or dry season refuges, with 70 classified as migratory, according to the review.

According to the WWF, among the species threatened is the Mekong’s famed giant catfish with only known spawning areas in the upper Mekong between Chiang Rai Province (Thailand) and Bokeo (Laos).

“How can you devise mitigation measures for fish passage without addressing the biology and the needs of target species, which in this case range from a small Siamese Mud Carp or Pa Soi to a 3-meter long giant catfish,” asked Jian-hua Meng, WWF International Sustainable Hydropower Specialist, in the Thursday statement.

“WWF supports a 10-year delay in the approval of lower Mekong mainstream dams, including the Xayaburi hydropower dam, to ensure a comprehensive understanding of all the impacts of their construction and operation,” it said.

The Mekong River's Pandora s box 

A woman fishes in the Mekong River in Laos in September 2010.

Though Zeus warned Pandora never to open the box given to her, the temptation proved too strong and Pandora forever unleashed into the world misery, suffering and sorrow.

Today, much like this mythical Greek tragedy, the decision-makers of the Mekong sub-region face a similar temptation in the form of a cascade of hydropower dams proposed for the Mekong River.

They have also received Zeus’ warning from a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) report that warns of grave social and environmental consequences should the dams proceed.

In September last year, the government of Laos initiated a regional decision-making process, facilitated by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), for the proposed Xayaboury dam located in the eponymous mountainous province in northern Laos.

Over the next four months, the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will make a joint decision on whether or not to approve construction of the dam, which would be the first of 11 mainstream dams proposed for the lower stretch of the river that runs through the four countries.

The initiation of this regional decision-making process on the Xayaboury dam pre-empted by three weeks the release of the SEA report, which was commissioned by the MRC in May 2009 and was originally intended to inform future decisions on mainstream dam development.

Whilst to most it would seem common sense to consider the SEA report’s recommendations before moving to more advanced stages of decision-making, it is perhaps not surprising that the Xayaboury dam has been pushed quickly ahead by its proponents, leapfrogging the launch of the SEA report by weeks.

The SEA report concludes that construction of dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream would irreversibly undermine the ecology and economic productivity of the river and will place at risk the livelihoods and food security of millions of people who depend upon the river’s resources.

It recommends that decision-making on Mekong mainstream dams, including Xayaboury, be deferred for 10 years due to the massive risks and vast impact associated with the projects, and the need for more than 50 more critical studies to ensure that decision-makers are fully informed about these risks.

With very limited commitment to transparency and accountability in this new decision-making process, however, it seems that common sense might be in short supply, although civil society groups and the wider public have tried to make their opinions heard.

While the regional decision-making procedures over the Xayaboury dam began three months ago, the MRC only publicly released an ambiguous roadmap for its implementation late last month.

Remarkably, whilst comment is invited, the project’s documents have not been disclosed to the public, rendering the process opaque, unaccountable and increasingly lacking in credibility.

In October 2009, for example, a 23,000-signature petition calling for the Mekong River’s mainstream to remain free of dams was sent to the prime ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

More recently, in September last year, Thai community groups representing about 24,000 people in five provinces along the Mekong River submitted a petition to Thailand’s Prime Minister asking him to cancel the Xayaboury dam.

If built, the Xayaboury dam will displace over 2,100 people, at least 200,000 people would suffer a direct impact on their livelihoods through the loss of fisheries, riverbank gardens, agricultural land and forests.

The dam would also block a critical fish migration route – including for 23 fish species that travel from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake – and scientists from around the world have concluded that there is no viable mitigation technology. Up to 41 fish species would face the threat of extinction, including the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish.

The myth of Pandora’s box has long been used as a lesson in the dangers of curiosity, temptation and the weaknesses of human nature. The question is, can we heed Pandora’s lesson before it is too late?

The decision lies in the hands of the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

On first inspection it may appear that Thailand is a key decision-maker, as it plans to purchase 95 percent of the Xayaboury dam’s electricity. In addition, the project’s lead developer is Thailand’s second largest construction company, Ch. Karnchang, and four major Thai banks are considering financing the project.

However, as the Mekong River is a shared resource between all four lower Mekong countries, and joint decision-making over its sustainable and equitable sharing is embodied in the 1995 “Mekong Agreement” that mandates the MRC, in fact it is decision-makers from all four Mekong countries that will formulate the final decision on whether the project is approved or not.

As Vietnam contemplates this crucial decision, serious consideration must be given to the trans-boundary impacts the Mekong Delta may suffer as a result of the development of the Xayaboury and ten other proposed dams on the Mekong River’s mainstream.

The Mekong River is an integrated ecosystem and upstream development can have unintended – but severe – downstream consequences.

By altering the delta’s important life-cycle of water, silt and nutrients, the mainstream dams could have far-reaching implications for the delta’s rice production, fisheries, and agriculture, with implications for the local and national economy.

In a world facing a growing food and water crisis, working together to protect and share the Mekong River’s rich natural resources, rather than undermining them, should be a high priority for the region’s decision-makers.

If, like Pandora, decision-makers choose not to heed the advice of the SEA report and instead open the dam-building box, grave misfortune is certain to follow.

It is yet not too late to prevent the tragedy of these dams from being unleashed. Some boxes are meant to remain unopened.

By Ame Trandem
Ame Trandem is a campaigner with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.

Bite into a broomstick 


With simple ingredients, tre embraces the unforgettable tastes of central Vietnam

Tré Binh Dinh at Moon River Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City’s Binh Thanh District

“Most people are put off when they see tre,” Le Thi Thanh says.

“Then they cut and taste it, and are astounded by the strong flavors.”

Thanh is the owner of Moon River Restaurant in Ho Chi Minh City, which specializes in delicacies from central Vietnam, including tre.

Tre is made using pig ear meat, pig head meat, pork, sesame, roasted rice powder, hot chilies, garlic, young guava leaves and banana leaves.

First, the meat is scalded in boiling water, and then quickly immersed in cool water. Once the meat is crispy, it is seasoned with spices. The seasoned meat is then skillfully wrapped in guava and banana leaves.

Finally, the package is wrapped in a thick layer of straw, and tied at the two ends with bamboo strings. The straw helps tre keep longer, and enhances the flavors and fragrance.


Customers can discover the central spicy flavor of tre at the following restaurants in HCMC:

* Moon River
233A Binh Quoi Street, Ward 28, Binh Thanh District

* Thanh Nga
45C Ky Dong Street, District 3

* Nam Giao
662/19 Su Van Hanh Street, District 10

* Chao Vit Sai Gon
40 Tran Cao Van Street, District 1

* Nau
156 Nguyen Van Troi Street, Ward 8, Phu Nhuan District

It also makes it look like a mini-broomstick, and definitely inedible.

After it has been wrapped tightly, tre is left to mature in a cool, airy place for three days and two nights.

After it matures, tre has the subtle aromas of fermented meat, galangal and garlic. It is served with rice paper, fresh vegetables, sliced green banana and cucumber.

The dish is dipped into fish sauce mixed with lime, chili, garlic and sugar, or into a sweet and spicy chili sauce.

Despite the rustic look of the tre, its unique flavors have transcended national boundaries. Recently, Thanh opened a new restaurant in Singapore, and tre has already become one of its best-selling dishes.

The sesame adds grease and crunch while the meat is soft and crispy.

Tre comes from central Vietnam, where the cuisine is often spicy. The influence is evident in the sweet and sour tang, and complex aroma of the dish. It is famous in central destinations such as the towns of Da Nang, Hue and Nha Trang and the provinces of Binh Dinh, Quang Ngai and Quang Nam.

For those who miss the spice of tre made in central Vietnam, head to the several restaurants in HCMC serving the popular dish.

Prices range from VND100,000- 120,000 for a portion in restaurants. It also makes great gifts for friends and family, costing around VND500,000 a kilo.

A new chapter 

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at a luncheon in Hanoi in July. Her back-to-back visits to Vietnam this year articulated the rising US commitment to bilateral relations.

Hillary Clinton’s back-to-back visits to Hanoi articulated the rising US commitment to US-Vietnam relations. Clinton’s recent announcement “The US is back in Southeast Asia,” struck a chord of surprise for many in the region.

In his farewell interview with Thanh Nien Weekly, departing US Ambassador Michael W. Michalak speaks broadly of the new cooperation between the two countries. The US has publicly opposed the damming of the Mekong River and Michalak articulates an emerging US position toward the Lower Mekong River Basin.

Michalak will leave Vietnam for his next assignment in the first week of January 2011.

Thanh Nien Weekly: How do you view your term as US Ambassador to Vietnam in the scope of your long career as a diplomat?

Michael W. Michalak: My experience as Ambassador to Vietnam has been one of the most interesting and rewarding experiences of my life, and certainly of my 30-plus years with the Department of State. Being able to play a role in moving beyond our painful past and building a strong partnership has been a tremendous honor.

What effects will the damming of the Mekong River in China, Laos and Cambodia have on the Mekong Delta?

During her visit to Hanoi (in October), Secretary of State Clinton discussed the potential impact of proposed dams on the mainstream of the Mekong River with her Lower Mekong Initiative partners in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. The Secretary recommended a pause before major construction continues and said the US would sponsor a study of the issue. Hydropower development on the Mekong mainstream is an issue of concern, as recent studies show that even one dam could cause irreparable damage to the complex ecosystem of the Mekong River Basin and pose an immediate and long-term threat to the food security and livelihoods of millions. For Vietnam, upstream dams will reduce water and sediment flows, resulting in saltwater intrusion, soil erosion, and decreased soil fertility, threatening agriculture and aquaculture productivity. The Mekong Delta is Vietnam’s “rice basket,” and Vietnam is the world’s number two rice exporter. This issue has consequences for global food security.

US Ambassador Michael W. Michalak

If these dams are built, how will they impact the livelihoods of those living in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta and in other lower Mekong countries? How will the residents of the Mekong Delta survive if they can no longer make a living farming and fishing?

It is critical to address the livelihoods of the 20 million Mekong Delta residents in Vietnam, 85 percent of whom rely on agricultural activities. The Delta has a higher GDP than the national average—10.2 perent growth in 2008, compared with 7-8 percent national growth. What’s more, Delta rice production accounts for 60 percent of the country’s total export turnover.

While some research is currently underway about adapting agricultural practices to address increased water salinity, for example, more is needed. The US’s Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) addresses education and environment among its four pillars. The DRAGON (Delta Research and Global Observation Network) Institute at Can Tho University, jointly established by the US and Vietnamese governments in 2008, continues to research Delta ecosystems and sustainable river deltas in the context of climate change.

Do you have any suggestions to promote more effective cooperation between the members of the Mekong River Commission?

In 2009, the US joined with Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam to launch the LMI. These four countries also make up the Mekong River Commission. The purpose of the LMI is to enhance cooperation on issues of regional importance.

One of the ways we have pursued this is through the sister-river partnership between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission. The Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission both play key roles in managing waterways that are vital to the livelihoods of millions of people. The sister-river partnership enables the two bodies to cooperate and share expertise and best practices in areas such as climate change adaptation, flood and drought management, hydropower impact assessment, water demand, and food security.

Data-sharing among the countries of the Mekong River Basin is key to finding sustainable ways to develop the basin. Last December, the US Geological Survey and Can Tho University brought together scientists and experts from throughout the region to share information on how climate change and human activities could impact the ecology and food security of the basin.

The US remains committed to forging fruitful, long-term ties to all four Mekong River Basin countries.

The recent visits of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton further strengthened the commitment of Vietnam and the US to ambitious cooperation in the areas of climate change, education, business, security and nuclear energy. Could you please give us more specific details regarding this cooperation?

The two visits by Secretary Clinton to Hanoi, less than four months apart, demonstrate the importance of the US-Vietnam relationship. In just 15 years, the scale of bilateral cooperation has increased dramatically in several areas, particularly in terms of trade, education and security.

During Secretary Clinton’s visit, she witnessed the signing of two very significant commercial agreements—between Vietnam Airlines and Boeing, and between Microsoft and the Ministry of Information and Communications.

Education has been another of my top priorities as Ambassador. And I’m very happy to say that in three years, the number of Vietnamese studying in the US has nearly tripled.

However, let me be clear: there is much work to be done. I agree with those Vietnamese who say that educational reform is key to taking Vietnam to the next developmental level, and the US looks forward to working with Vietnam as it takes the necessary, tough steps to strengthen its educational system.

Both Secretary of Defense Gates, who participated in October’s ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus Summit, and Secretary of State Clinton reaffirmed the US government’s interest in deepening security cooperation with Vietnam. Specifically, the US and Vietnam agreed to work bilaterally and through regional institutions such as ASEAN to address such challenges as humanitarian assistance/disaster relief, search and rescue, maritime security, and peacekeeping.

Our two countries also agreed to deepen cooperation in military education and exchanges. It is an area that has developed at a deliberate pace, but one that has great potential and is very important to maintain peace, prosperity, and stability in the region.

On nuclear energy, the US and Vietnam concluded a general Memorandum of Understanding on civilian nuclear cooperation in March. We have not yet opened formal negotiations on the 123 agreement, but we look forward to doing so.

Climate change is an issue both the US and Vietnam take very seriously, which is why we established a joint working group to deal with this global threat. Vietnam is one of the countries that will be most severely impacted by rising sea levels caused by climate change, and we applaud it for its pro-active response.

What do you consider the most significant changes and improvements to the bilateral relationship during your term as US Ambassador to Vietnam?

I think the most significant progress in the bilateral relationship has been made in three areas: our trading partnership, educational exchanges, and security cooperation. Secretary Clinton, in fact, recently said the progress made in our relationship has been “breathtaking.”

Officials discuss river pollution, allocate blame

A stretch of the Thi Vai River which is heavily polluted

Leaders of southern provinces were Friday called on to do more to tackle pollution in one of the region’s dying waterways, including stepping up factory inspections and blacklisting polluters.

At a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City Friday to discuss ways to resuscitate the polluted Thi Vai River, provincial officials recommended no new licenses be issued for “dirty” manufacturers, such as latex, leather tanning and cassava starch (used to make monosodium glutamate) plants.

New licenses for other polluting industries, such as fisheries, pesticides, fertilizer and paper production, should also be limited, officials said.

The Thi Vai River, which flows through HCMC and Dong Nai and Ba Ria-Vung Tau Provinces, contains a 10- kilometer stretch of “dead” water that cannot support life.

Tran Ngoc Thoi, deputy mayor of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, condemned local agencies for issuing manufacturing licenses without properly studying the environmental impacts.

Thoi said the law was not tough enough on those caught polluting the local environment.

Over the past months, many companies have been caught dumping toxic wastewater into different rivers. The companies have been fined but continued to operate.

The most high-profile case was Taiwanese MSG-maker Vedan Vietnam, which was caught dumping great amounts of untreated wastewater into the Thi Vai River in mid-September.

Vedan Vietnam has been accused of dumping 105.6 million liters of untreated effluent a month through hidden pipes into the southern Thi Vai River.

The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment in early October ordered the MSG-maker to stop discharging wastewater but provincial officials several weeks later said they did not have authority to act against the company or close it down.

The delegates to the meeting proposed a blacklist of polluters be drawn up by June next year.

Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province’s Thoi pointed out that authorities had ignored warnings from scientists about the pollution of the Thi Vai River for the past decade.

From next year, the Ba Ria-Vung Tau provincial government would not allow any local company to discharge untreated wastewater into the Thi Vai River, Thoi vowed at Friday’s meeting.

“From the point of view of Ba Ria-Vung Tau Province, we will succeed but overall success will depend on Dong Nai and HCMC authorities doing their bit too,” Thoi said.

HCMC Deputy Mayor Nguyen Trung Tin said the task of policing industrial parks was too big.

“The HCMC government cannot make sure all local industrial parks don’t pollute the environment,” he said.

Tin said the environment pollution was the price the city had paid for two decades of economic development.

“[HCMC] will do its best to protect the Thi Vai River,” Tin said.

Delegates at the meeting pointed out that a company that was rejected for a license in one jurisdiction on environmental grounds could be welcomed in another province.


A committee was set up Friday to protect the Dong Nai River, to be chaired by Ho Chi Minh City Mayor Le Hoang Quan.

The committee, comprising of leaders of HCMC and 11 south-central provinces, will be allocated around VND2 trillion (US$117.4 million) from now until 2020 to tackle the serious contamination of the Dong Nai River, the country’s biggest river system which provides water to the Southern Key Economic Zone around HCMC.

The Thi Vai River is one of the Dong Nai River’s five minor streams.

Source: TN, Agencies

Leather firm violates Dong Dien River

Police scrutinize the wastewater treatment system from which Hao Duong had taken away several plastic pipes last Sunday.

Tough action proposed as yet another serious environmental pollution case is exposed.

The Hao Duong leather company could lose its investment license and face criminal charges for releasing untreated carcinogenic effluents into the Dong Dien River in Ho Chi Minh City’s Nha Be District.

The company was caught in the act during a surprise raid last week.

This is the latest in a series of illegal wastewater dumping activities of the firm over the past four years, the city’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment said in a dispatch Monday.

The firm has flouted environment codes at least 20 times since 2005 and 10 times in this year alone, the department said.

Since Hao Duong, which began operating in 2003, upgraded its capacity in mid-September, the firm has discharged large amounts of untreated wastewater, estimated at around 2,500 cubic meters everyday, through a floating pipe system to the Dong Dien River, the department said.

The toxic effluents, found containing a cancer-causing substance, were dozens of times higher than permissible levels.

The company had also released around 48 tons of waste mud and other leather waste into the vicinity, leaving nearby companies and locals bearing the brunt of the stinky odour and other environmental impacts.

Hao Duong had also deliberately taken away several plastic pipes meant for discharging the untreated wastewater last Sunday after the police had cordoned off the dumping system a day earlier pending further investigations, investigators told Thanh Nien.

Given its dire environment violations, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment Monday proposed that the city police force press criminal charges against the company. This marks the second time since July that the department has proposed criminal action against the firm.

The HCMC Export Processing and Industrial Zones Authority (HEPZA) has also been told to revoke the investment license and official stamp of the company.

Ngo Anh Tuan, Deputy Head of the Environment Desk under HEPZA told a local newspaper Monday that the police should factor in other allegations leveled against Hao Duong, including the releasing of dirty wastewater into the Dong Dien River via another underlying system.

The firm had earlier reported to authorities concerned that it had jettisoned this wastewater treatment facility, Tuan said.

Bravado, bluster

It was not until he was brought to the “crime scene” last weekend while the wastewater system was dumping blackened effluents into the Dong Dien River that Tang Van Duc, Hao Duong’s chairman, confessed to committing environmental violations.

But he claimed that the firm was releasing just 1,000-1,200 cubic meters of untreated wastewater per day instead of around 2,500 cubic meters as alleged.

Prior to Duc’s arrival, the police had worked through the night to catch the leather processing plant red-handed.

At a meeting with the HEPZA management on September 15, chairman Duc had admitted his firm had released untreated wastewater to the river since late 2007 and promised to stop the illegal activity beginning September 17.

But a week later, a surprise inspection by HEPZA discovered the firm was still discharging blackened, stinking wastewater into the Dong Dien River. Tests proved the effluents fell far short of safety standards.

Early this year, the Department of Natural Resources and Environment found that the firm had failed to build a wastewater treatment facility as committed. The department had asked the municipal government to fine the firm twice in April and June.

It was three months ago that the city first called for criminal action against the firm for the dumping of untreated wastewater into the river through another, different pipe system. The department also withdrew the wastewater dumping license of the firm in July.

The Hao Duong case comes in the wake of many environmental scandals, led by the illegal wastewater dumping by Taiwanese monosodium glutamate (MSG) maker Vedan Vietnam in southern Dong Nai Province and its South Korean counterpart Miwon in the northern province of Phu Tho.

At a meeting last week, the HCMC government said that mass inspections of industrial parks and export processing zones would continue until the end of March next year.

Companies based in industrial parks or export processing zones will have their licenses revoked or be removed from the areas if their wastewater systems fall short of the required standards, the city administration warned.


Last Thursday, southern Dong Nai Province authorities caught the CIVIC company in Bien Hoa 1 Industrial Park dumping untreated wastewater directly into Dong Nai River which supplies drinking water to Ho Chi Minh City.

Binh Phuoc authorities also said all the wastewater discharge by Vedan firm based in the province had fallen short of required standards.

In Bac Lieu Province, local authorities fined two local firms for causing environmental pollution and discharging substandard wastewater.