Photos: The teeming Mekong

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  1. Fishing boats ply the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia, catching migratory fish as they move from the large inland lake to the Mekong River at the end of the rainy season. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Among the fish populations that could be harmed by the Xayaburi dam in Laos is the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish, considered by the Guinness Book of World Records to be the world’s largest freshwater fish. The fish, which grows to 650 pounds and about 10 feet long, is only found in the Mekong River. It is migratory, moving between downstream habitats in Cambodia upstream to northern Thailand and Laos each year to spawn. Some experts fear the Xayaburi dam could block the migration and drive the giant catfish to extinction. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Fish and fishing have been a central part of life along the Mekong for thousands of years. This ancient carving from Angkor Wat illustrates the importance of fish in everyday life and shows some of the same carp and catfish species that are staples today. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Fishermen unload their catch during the peak migration of fish in the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia. During these periods, fishermen catch thousands of tons of fish and fish that they barter for other essential goods, like salt. Migratory fish – and the people that depend on them -- are the most vulnerable to the effects of dams. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Migratory fish, like these small carp from Cambodia known as "trey riel” or money fish, make up an estimated 40 percent to 70 percent of the 2.5 million metric tons of fish harvested from the Mekong River basin each year. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The Tonle Sap Lake, is the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia. In the dry season, the shallow lake spreads over 2,500 square kilometers; at the height of the rainy season its surface area expands fourfold and the maximum depth increases from 4 meters to 10 meters. Life around the lake, including local people, is uniquely adapted to the seasonal cycles. During the dry season, huge numbers of fish migrate out of the Tonle Sap Lake to the Mekong River. Local people take advantage this annual movement by living in floating villages, as seen in the photo, and fixing all manner of traps and nets to snare the migrating fish – such as these huge “arrow” traps, which can be over a mile long. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. The endangered giant barb, Catlocarpio siamensis, is the largest cyprinid (carp) in the world, growing to an estimated 600 pounds. The Mekong River is home to more species of giant fish than any river on Earth. This 200 pound specimen was captured by fishermen as it migrated out of the Tonle Sap Lake and into the Mekong River on Nov. 15, 2003. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Seven-striped barb for sale at a market in southern Laos in 2010. The seven-striped barb is one of the Mekong largest fish, growing to 200 pounds and about 5 feet in length. It is listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As recently as 1989, the seven-striped barb was reported as “extremely abundant” in the Mekong, but it appears to have experienced a significant decline since. The seven-striped barb would be further impacted by the Xayaburi dam, potentially blocking access to the fish's spawning areas. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Fishermen work the confluence of the Tonle Sap and Mekong Rivers in Cambodia in January 2003.The Mekong River is the most productive inland fishery in the world, fishermen harvest about 2.5 million tons of fish per year worth an estimated $3 billion to $6 billion. The 60 million people living in the Mekong River basin get the majority of their protein from fish and have some of the highest per capita fish consumption rates on the planet. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. A fisherman in Cambodia holds up the tail of a giant freshwater stingray, which are rumored to grow to 1,000 pounds and approximately 20 feet in length. This specimen was caught in December 2002 and measured almost 14 feet in length. The giant freshwater stingray, which was only discovered 20 years ago, is just one of almost 1,000 species of fish that live in the Mekong, a hotspot for freshwater fish biodiversity, second only to the Amazon. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The Khone Falls area is one of the most important sites for migratory fish – and people who depend on them for their livelihoods – in the entire Mekong River Basin. Over 200 species of fish occur at the falls. Every year, millions of fish struggle to climb the falls, and fishermen in the area harvest them in huge numbers. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. People of the Mekong have invented all manner of ingenious ways of catching fish, many of them adapted to a specific site, flow and time of year. These lee traps at the Khone Falls in southern Laos, captured on June 2, 2010, are an excellent example: fishermen construct the traps in the dry season when water levels are low to catch fish at the onset of the rainy season. As the rising water levels cue the fish to begin their migration, the traps are inundated and literally strain the migrating fish out of the water column. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The goonch, or bagrid catfish, is a large predatory catfish that can grow to 600 pounds and 10 feet long. In the Mekong, populations have declined and the largest fish now reach about 6 feet long and 200 pounds. Its life cycle remains a mystery, as is the case with most species of Mekong fish. While little is known about the ecology of the goonch suggests that populations have declined due to the impacts of dams. This photo was taken in India where the goonch is rumored to stalk, attack and kill humans, though that has not been verified. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Two boys carry river catfish along the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia in 2002. Though once a staple food throughout its range, dams and heavy exploitation as a food source have driven river catfish to near extinction in the Chao Phraya River in Thailand and the Thai Mekong. Plans to dam the Mekong could disrupt the life cycle of river catfish, which is migratory and appears to rely on flow or water quality to facilitate migrations, cue spawning and aid in the dispersal of young fish. (Courtesy of Zeb Hogan / University of Nevada, Reno) Back to slideshow navigation
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Image: Miranda Leitsinger
By Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 4/19/2011 4:17:14 PM ET 2011-04-19T20:17:14

Millions of people living along the Mekong River face a crisis that could destroy their lifeline and kill off whole species of fish: construction of a dam — the first of 11 proposed in the waterway's lower basin — in Laos.

Conservationists warn that the dam could significantly reduce the critical fish stock in the Mekong, the world's most productive inland fishery.

Laos deferred a decision on the hydropower dam Tuesday in the face of strong opposition from neighboring countries, including one of its closest allies, Vietnam. But any decision could be a moot point, as a Thai newspaper reported Sunday that work on the project apparently began months ago despite questions and opposition from conservationists and Laos's downriver neighbors, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Under earlier agreements, Laos has the right to proceed on its own without approval of the other three nations. But Tuesday's move appears to indicate that the desperately poor country wants its neighbors' support, especially that of Vietnam, which is a major trading partner and political patron.

The Xayaburi dam would generate 1,260 megawatts of electricity, mostly for export to Thailand, according to the Mekong River Commission — created by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995 to oversee sustainable development along the waterway.

Laos proposed building the dam in September 2010, the main goal being to generate "foreign exchange earnings for financing socio-economic development in Lao PDR," according to the river commission.

The 3,000-mile river, which winds from China's Tibetan Plateau through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, is home to nearly 1,000 freshwater fish species — including more species of giant fish, such as the Mekong giant catfish and the dog-eating catfish, than any other river. It provides a total harvest of about 2.5 million metric tons a year worth up to $6.5 billion, according to fish biologist Zeb Hogan, a research professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, who has studied the river for 15 years.

A critical resource
The Mekong is critical to the 60 million people who reside in the lower basin, with many of them living in poverty, according to the MRC's 2010 "State of the Basin" report.

Mekong River Commission MRC/Bing.com
"The livelihoods and food security of most people in the basin are closely linked to the Mekong and the resources it supports," the report said, noting that fish "provide an important contribution to regional food security, in the form of consumption of fish bought or caught and cash income from fish related activities, ranging from making nets to fish sales."

About two-thirds of the population of the lower Mekong Basin population — or 40 million people — are involved in the Mekong's fishery at least part-time or seasonally, the MRC said.

Children, families and fishermen employ a wide variety of nets along the Mekong riverbanks, including some that resemble large butterfly nets and others that float in the water, typically marked by plastic bottles. Babies in fishing families living on boats drift to sleep in swings made of fishing net, while children in Cambodia play with the tails of giant sting rays. People wash vegetables, animals, clothes and even motorcycles in the waterway.

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In a review of the Thai developer's plans, the MRC expressed concerns that the project, which would be the first in the Mekong's lower basin, would negatively affect the fishery. Among other things, it said a proposed "fish ladder" for migration up and downstream was "ineffective," and would "result in species loss over time," with a "strong possibility" of the Mekong giant catfish becoming extinct.

It also said that power generation could be reduced due to sedimentation that could result in a loss of 60 percent of the reservoir's capacity and that plans for water quality and aquatic ecosystem health did not meet international best practice.

'A number of areas of uncertainty'
"The project review by the MRC Secretariat highlights a number of areas of uncertainty on which further information is needed to address fully the extent of transboundary impacts and mitigation measures required," the report said. "Some of these have implications for the financing and operation of the proposed project as well as its long-term sustainability."

In an environmental assessment prepared for the MRC, the International Center for Environmental Management proposed deferring decisions on dams for 10 years and noted: "The Mekong mainstream should never be used as a test case for proving and improving full dam hydropower technologies."

Conservation groups and some of Laos' neighbors have also expressed opposition to the project.

Officials in both Vietnam and Cambodia had urged delays on a decision, according to reports in The Saigon Times Daily and the The Phnom Penh Post.

International Rivers, a California-based group that campaigns to protect rivers, said the project would forcibly resettle more than 2,100 people and directly affect more than 202,000. Aviva Imhof, interim executive director of the group, said she worried about the precedent this first dam could set if allowed to proceed.

"Our fear is that if this project which is, its such a poor standard of development, is allowed to go forward, it will literally open the floodgates for all these other projects to go forward," she said. "That's why we believe it's crucial that the governments of the region recognize that this project and all the others present a really serious threat to the river ecology and to people's livelihoods."

The Thai developer, Ch. Karnchang Public Co. Ltd., has played down the concerns.

Developer touts benefits
In an undated report on the project, it stated that only 424 households would have to be resettled. And it stated that the project "would use the enormous potential of the huge Mekong mainstream, an international river, for the benefit of its riparian countries, especially to the Lao PDR ... and Thailand, where reliable supply would satisfy its high demand." And the money generated by the electricity sales would help Laos strengthen its economy and improve social welfare, it said.

It also said the project would not alter water flow — thereby avoiding water fluctuations and bank erosion — and would improve boat navigation, maintain fish migration by providing fish-passing facilities and allow sediment to move downstream through sluices.

At Tuesday's day-long meeting, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam raised concerns about "gaps in technical knowledge and studies about the project, predicted impact on the environment and livelihoods of people in the Mekong Basin and the need for more public consultations," the MRC said in a statement.

Vietnam proposed that this project — and other hydropower projects planned for the Mekong mainstream — be delayed for at least 10 years.

“The deferment should be positively seen as a way to provide much-needed time for riparian governments to carry out comprehensive and more specific quantitative studies on all possible cumulative impacts,” Le Duc Trung, head of Vietnam's delegation, said in the MRC statement. “The deferment would enable the country to secure better understanding and the confidence of the public and local communities.”

Laos disagreed, saying it was not practical to extend the process and argued that the dam would not have a negative environmental impact on its neighbors."

“We appreciate all comments, (and) we will consider to accommodate all concerns,” said Viraphonh Viravong, head of the Lao Delegation.

Since the four nations could not reach a consensus on how to proceed with the project, they agreed to pass it over to consideration by the MRC Council, which consists of water and environmental ministers from each of those countries. The council could call a special meeting to take up the matter, or it could wait until it's annual meeting near year's end to address the project, said Tiffany Hacker, an MRC spokeswoman.

While the criticism had been harsh in advance of Tuesday's meeting, it may already have been drowned out by the sound of bulldozers.

The Bangkok Post on Sunday reported that their reporters last week "found major road works under construction" in the area surrounding the proposed dam and "villagers preparing to be relocated" — with some told they would get about $15 in compensation. In an editorial on Monday titled "Shame on the dam builders," the Post wrote: "There is no chance that anyone connected with this sneaky endeavour will actually play straight with the public."

It also claimed the Thai government gave political backing to the decision because that country would be the major beneficiary of the dam — both in jobs and salaries from the Thai firm building it and the electricity produced by it — despite strong local opposition. However, the MRC said in its statement that Thailand's delegation had raised concerns about the project and joined the majority in passing it to the river council.

Glahan, of the MRC, said the consultation process between the four countries on the Xayaburi dam was intended to finish before preliminary construction began. Birgit Vogel, an MRC technical adviser, said she visited the proposed dam site in November 2010.

"When we visited, we couldn’t see any signs of construction," she said by phone, noting she had seen the photos from the Bangkok newspaper. "Regarding the current construction, we've not been officially informed, but we will write to Lao PDR for clarification on the case."

'A free-flowing river'
Hogan, the University of Nevada biologist, said his opposition to the dam wasn't simply a matter of a conservationist opposing any dam.

"The Lower Mekong River is still a free-flowing river. It remains incredibly productive and we haven't seen any species extinctions yet," he said. "You compare that to somewhere, for instance, like the Red River in China or the Yangtze River in China, where the river is so polluted that people can no longer use it — they're not fishing there anymore, people can no longer use it for drinking water."

Forty to 70 percent of the river's fish are migratory, including some of the largest freshwater fish in the world, which are critically endangered but have managed to survive because they can complete their life cycle without impediment, Hogan said.

Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for International Rivers, said the river had "gotten a much-needed but temporary reprieve."

“A healthy Mekong River is central to sustainable development in the region, and simply too precious a resource to squander," she said in a statement. "Given the project’s inevitable transboundary impacts, we urge the region’s governments to acknowledge the widespread concern of the public and civil society groups and indefinitely cancel the Xayaburi Dam project.”

Follow Miranda Leitsinger on Facebook

Reuters contributed to this report.

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