When it comes to sand, I have previous. I spent my boyhood summers on the beach half a mile from our home in Wales. It was an all-purpose playground – a cricket pitch, nature trail and construction yard all in one. My experience tells me that the sand of Siphandone district in Laos would be ideal for building castles.
But a different sort of engineering project has been the topic here this week.
The landscape in southern Laos feels a little different from Wales. The Mekong river carves a broad swathe through a jigsaw of jungle and rice paddy. The roar of the torrent, punctuated by the bluebottle buzz of the motorised canoes which ply the river, add an aural dimension to a verdant backdrop. The sun’s warmth is close and intense, like the too-long hello hug of your great aunt Alicia.
The whole ecosystem is as alive as any I’ve seen. Clouds of dragonflies patrol assertively above. From the riverbank we saw Mekong dolphins in cool pursuit of panicked silver-sided fish. There were more geckos than I could count on the ceiling of our lodge yesterday evening, all dining on a smorgasbord of bugs.
It’s the Mekong that brings the sand to Siphandone. Bucket loads of it. Measurements are difficult, but my colleague Marc Goichot – a charismatic Frenchman who for 10 years has dedicated himself to conserving the Mekong – tells me that around 160 million tonnes of sediment is thought to be transported along the river every year. Much of it is sand.
There are patches where bedrock emerges – particularly at the spectacular Khonephaphone waterfall near the border with Cambodia and Thailand – but most of the riverbank, floodplain and island habitats here are built from sand. There’s so much of it in the river that the water is the colour of peanut butter.
Slowly, inevitably, most of the sand is carried to Vietnam a thousand kilometres south, helping to keep the Mekong delta above rising seas. Although it only passes time in Siphandone, it serves a purpose while it’s here: it is on this substrate that the endangered Cantor’s giant soft-shelled turtle (Pelochelys cantorii) lays its eggs.
The riverbanks and islands are home to people too, their stilted houses perched above the sand. Pigs, chickens, goats – and sometimes small children – forage beneath. The Mekong basin is home to some 60 million people, many of whom rely on the river for their livelihoods. Those I’ve encountered here in Laos have shown ready smiles, but there’s no escaping that this is a poor part of the world. The need for economic development is real and significant.
Developing economies, like all others, need electricity. South-east Asia is no exception. Thailand, just to the west of Laos, has already exploited the easy options for domestic power generation. It is looking now to Laos, and to the Mekong, for the next power surge.
Hydropower has its plus points. A river like the Mekong can provide a reliable base-load of energy. It emits fewer greenhouse gases than burning fossil fuels. For Laos, selling hydro-electricity to Thailand could be a source of revenue to support its own development. So it’s no surprise that ministers in Vientiane and Bangkok are all for a proposed dam at Xayaburi, a few hundred kilometres upstream of Siphandone.
Their Vietnamese and Cambodian counterparts are less keen on the Xayaburi dam, in part because of the risk that sand will be trapped behind it (impacts on fisheries are also a big concern, but that’s a topic for another blog post). If this happens, it will spell trouble for communities and wildlife habitats downstream. The 17 million people living in the Mekong Delta might, over time, see the land literally disappear from beneath their feet.
But the electricity has to come from somewhere. So what’s to be done?
Marc and his colleagues in WWF’s Greater Mekong Programme point to an alternative approach at Thakho, just above the Khonephaphone falls, as an example of what is possible. The Thakho hydro-electricity project, cleverly-designed to avoid the worst impacts on the ecosystem and communities, would ensure a steady flow of power into the regional grid.
At a consultation meeting in Pakse city, our translator, Mr Srinuntawong, smartly dressed and a diligent note-taker, assured us that the majority of participants – from local authorities, the tourism authority and international agencies – expected more benefits than problems from Thakho.
A rival scheme at nearby Done Sahong is more controversial. For technical reasons relating to the flow of the river, only one of these projects – Thakho or Done Sahong – can go ahead. (Xayaburi, Thakho and Done Sahong are among 12 hydropower projects currently being considered for the main channel of the Mekong.)
Thakho could even unlock a regional debate about dams on the Mekong. Under the terms of the impressively-named Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA), the governments of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam are meant to reach agreement before any new dam is built across the main channel.
The inter-governmental Mekong River Commission is struggling to hold the line on the PNPCA. Despite an agreement last year to halt work at Xayaburi until new studies of the environmental impacts are completed, a minister from the Laos administration has just announced that construction was moving ahead. WWF has expressed concern. So, in strident terms, have Cambodian officials.
A decision from Vientiane to push on with a Done Sahong dam would further exacerbate tensions. But positive noises from across the borders suggest that Vietnam and Cambodia might accept the hydro-electric scheme at Thakho. All eyes are now on Lao ministers as they consider which of the initiatives should get the green light.
A burst of monsoon rain had us dashing for cover before I could build any castles on the Siphandone riverbank. I may not get another chance. The sands of time could run out soon for the Mekong river. Marc’s work is more urgent now than ever and he needs WWF-UK’s support. In spades.