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Hydroelectric Development along the Mekong Delta

Introduction

Hydroelectric development is often a contentious issue that usually comes with both merits and demerits depending on a number of factors. The world has an indisputable dependence on energy now, and hydroelectric power generation is so far one of the most reliable and considerably safe alternatives for sourcing electricity compared to many other destructive, unsustainable and inefficient ways. Like in most cases of infrastructural projects that have an environmental impact, it is obvious that there would be a lot of uncertainties over whether hydroelectric development would be good or bad in the long term. To answer this dilemma objectively, one would have to weigh its benefits against its costs to the environment and communities around the area. This paper will particularly consider the Mekong Delta with a clear interest in establishing how the hydroelectric development will bring significant advantages to societal groups living within the territory. To accomplish this, the work will focus on understanding the importance of the Mekong Delta, the hydroelectric development along it, and what it entails, the potential economic and social benefits of the development and the prospective disadvantages of the project to the communities, in particular ethnic minorities living along the Delta.

The Mekong Delta and Its Importance

The Mekong Delta is a region in the South Western part of Vietnam that encompasses a large area through which the Mekong River flows on its way to the South China Sea (Mekong River Commission 2010). Geographically, the Mekong Delta exhibits a varied terrain with flood plains and hills. These variations are known to be a product of tectonic uplifts and folding that occurred millions of years ago. The area has a forest cover of less than 8% and a population of about 18 million (Mekong River Commission 2010). Furthermore, this region is also home to Viet, Khmer and Hoa people, with the Viet being the predominant group and the rest being ethnic minorities (Osborne 2009). In terms of the biodiversity, the territory around the Mekong Delta was once referred to as a biological treasure trove with over 1000 different animal species (Osborne 2009). The greatest concern at the moment is the rising sea level that will leave most of the provinces in the area flooded within the next two decades similarly to the majority of the coastal areas around the world.

There are a number of factors make the Mekong Delta a very important part of Vietnam and the rest of the world. First, as mentioned above, it is a treasure trove in a biological context with the numerous animal species that are indigenous there. As such, destroying the Mekong Delta would contribute immensely to the extinction of some of them. At the same time, while not all the animal species in the region can be considered as endangered and, thus, in need of protection, it is necessary to note is that their presence is mandatory to the existing healthy ecosystem. In general, tampering with nature has in many cases brought negative consequences on the planet.

In addition, the Mekong Delta is responsible for over 50% of the nation’s agricultural output (Mekong River Commission 2010). This is mainly because the region has a combined area of up to 2.6 million hectares used for agriculture. The total territory used for agriculture in Vietnam is about 10 million hectares, meaning that the Mekong Delta takes on a quarter of this industrial activity (David 2012). The region alone produces over 50% of Vietnam’s rice, which is the main food crop in the country (David 2012). Therefore, any actions that threaten the region’s ability to support large scale agriculture jeopardize food security not just for the 18 million residents in the region but for the rest of Vietnam. Economically, it can be noted that while the area is not heavily industrialized, it still contributes significantly to the national industrial sector. With an input of about 10% of national earnings from the manufacturing sector, the Mekong Delta also has a great potential in industrialization, and this can be worked on for better results (David 2012).  

The Hydroelectric Development along the Mekong and What It Entails

Hydroelectric power is considered as one of the most effective and practical sources of renewable energy. However, in order to produce it, there must be a number of interferences in terms of the nature. This kind of electricity requires the construction of large dams along the length of the river. In most cases, their building causes obstacles for the natural flow of the river not only during the erection process of the dams but also during the production of the power (Vih 2006). As a result, a number of aspects that are dependent on the ability of the water to flow freely are affected.

Furthermore, in order to create the hydroelectric power plants along the Mekong River, there is a need to construct numerous dams in strategic areas in order to fully take advantage of the electric generation capacity of the river (Mekong River Commission 2010). Therefore, the structures will not just be in one part of the river but effectively distributed along its length as needed. Moreover, the building process will involve introducing a lot of potentially harmful substances like cement into the water. Lastly, the presence of heavy machinery and a lot of human activity is likely to be felt by the aquatic life.

Potential Economic and Social Benefits of the Development

There are a number of economic and social benefits that the hydroelectric development of the region may bring. First, it will create many employment opportunities for the local population which means that the people of the region will no longer have to rely too much on agriculture and the limited manufacturing industry. Additionally, with the completion of the construction, the region around the delta will have one of the largest sources of hydroelectric power based on production capacity. The maintenance of such a large scale project is also another source of jobs for the residents of the area. Consequently, the unemployment rate will be lowered due to the short and long term occupation of the locals resulting in a better economic status of the region in general (Vinh 2006).

Another potential benefit of the development is the fact that it will diversify the region’s economy. Currently, the Mekong Delta is dependent upon agriculture and aquaculture, with limited involvement in manufacturing probably due to the high cost of energy required to operate a production plant. With the hydroelectric power plant, the area will have a wide range of alternatives to sustain its economy, thus reducing the threat of collapse in the event of a climate change. Obviously, changes in the climate are likely to significantly affect the territory’s economic status since the weather directly influences the agricultural production and the yields generated by aquafarming.

To continue, it is important to note that selling energy to the surrounding regions and even internationally, and being able to operate production plants at a lower cost in the area are factors that will greatly improve the region’s economic status. As a result, the region’s status will change from being just the nation’s food basket to being their source of energy and also a convenient and cost-efficient hub for manufacturing industry. In addition, the rising value of sustainable energy in the international markets means that in the future, many willing buyers will be dependent upon the area for all their energy needs.

Speaking about social context, it is apparent that one of the greatest roots of tension in a society is the division of natural resources. Marginalized communities tend to remain poor because they are locked out of credible opportunities for economic empowerment especially in cases where there is limited wealth to be shared. With the hydroelectric power plants, the Mekong Delta region will have an abundance of opportunities for economic advancement (Lee 2008). The power plants are likely to require skilled labor, while the new business opportunities in the manufacturing industry will also be open to participation by anyone who has the means and the commitment. Generally, the hydroelectric development will be open for exploitation by all people in the region. This implies an improved social context with better chances of cohesion.

Lastly, it can be noted that in the current state, the region is at a constant risk of flooding owing to the flat plain terrain in most of the places. Building dams along the length of the Mekong River will ensure that the water levels are monitored closely enough, with warning systems in the case of potential flooding, as well as possible depletion in the process of generating the electricity (Bakker 2010).

Potential Disadvantages of the Development

Despite all the mentioned above advantages of the project, one should pay attention to its drawbacks. One of the most outstanding negative impacts likely to be generated is a disruption of normal water flow and sedimentation. This ecological issue will affect communities both in the upstream and downstream areas of the river in equal measure. While residents living upstream may enjoy stable power supply, those located downstream will experience disruptions in river currents and sediments deposition.

More so, an increased vulnerability to climate change is one of the greatest potential hazards in the area as the dams will interrupt the usual flow of the river and with it, the monsoon cycle. Once the river is not able to overflow and dry up as it is used to doing, the people in the area will have to adjust to the new status of their weather (Molle, Foran & Kakonen 2014). This may entail a lot of changes within the agricultural and aquatic fronts. With different weather patterns, the region will have different farming and fishing seasons, and this will be difficult to adjust to. They may even never be able to fully adapt and reap as much from their farms and the water as they are doing now. With threats to food security, the social stability will be threatened as the residents might go back to struggling for the limited resources.

Additionally, the damming of the river generally blockades it, limiting the free movement of aquatic life. It is a well-known fact that the anglers on the Mekong River mainly depend on fish species that migrate over a long distance to get to their spawning grounds. However, due to the construction, the volume of the fishing yield will reduce significantly. Therefore, with time, the aquaculture in the region will be reduced by up to 70% (Bakker 1999). Furthermore, considering that the fishing industry along the Mekong River is known to sustain over 60 million livelihoods in the greater Mekong region, the potential collapse of the industry is simply catastrophic (Bakker 1999). The fact that over 60 million people could gradually lose their source of income means that the damming of the river will be more destructive than beneficial to the residents of the territory under consideration.

Lastly, it should be noted that the erection of dams in the lower parts of the river would imply blocking the nutrients from flowing upstream. As a consequence, the communities in the Upper Mekong will no longer have the richness of their soils replenished by the river’s waters (Lee & Scurrah 2009). The limited amount of nutrients will then lead to poor yields in the farming sector as well. In the long term, the farmers may have to rely on chemical fertilizers, which will be washed into the river and further deteriorate the already impoverished aquatic life. In the end, the destruction will be endless and irreversible especially for the farming and aquaculture (Wyatt & Baird 2007). Eventually, the natural resources that were meant to unite the region regardless of ethnic affiliation will create tension between the upstream populations and those in the Lower Mekong region. The stated above could just easily become civil strife as the individuals residing upstream will get the less benefits out of the hydroelectric development.

Conclusion

To sum up, it is evident from the foregoing analysis that the hydroelectric developments along the mainstream of the Mekong River and its tributaries have caused and will continue to be the reasons of negative effects for the communities living within its environs. One of the major benefits that the people living there will receive from the projects is the provision of hydropower. As an economic stimulant, this triggers development and helps to meet the rising energy demand. The main communities that are liable to enjoy these advantages are riparian countries, especially China, Thailand, and Vietnam.

However, this comes with a variety of challenges to the groups living in the surrounding areas of the Mekong. First, building the dams along the river will entail contaminating the water body with construction materials and prolonged human presence. The heavy machinery used in the process will also be a problem as they will greatly disturb the aquatic life in the area. Moreover, it can be noted that the eventual deterioration of the ecosystem will make the farming and fishing unsustainable thus limiting economic opportunities for the local population. Throwing the region back into poverty will spark significantly dangerous conflicts that may put the marginalized communities at a disadvantage. Economic stability is usually the only remedy for social tensions, and this project seems to have the potential of destabilizing the region’s economy in the long term. Unlike farming, selling energy may put money in the pockets of a few while leaving the majority stranded. While there may be a strong argument for the hydroelectric development of the Mekong Delta region, it must be considered that the entire debate on the sustainable energy is hinged on the survival and maintenance of the planet. This means that any approach that involves destruction of the environment in any given way is simply unacceptable.

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