Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Freshwater Dolphins in Laos in Dire Straights

When talking about dolphins, the nation of Laos really doesn't come into play. Now though there is a species of freshwater dolphin that are facing immediate extinction due to a dam that is to be built on the Mekong river.

The area of the very large Mekong river that I am talking about can be found in Southern Laos. As you can see, this is a very important river, stretching from countries north of Laos, it snakes through Laos, borders Thailand, cuts through Cambodia, and empties into the South China Sea through Vietnam. The importance of this river to all of the people living near is simply incredible. With the construction of this dam, the entire river could change. Living in this river is the Endangered Irrawaddy dolphin.

The Mekong is home to the largest known pod of these dolphins left on Earth. That would be a whopping 11 individuals. The greatest threat that this dam is going to pose to these dolphins is the removal of 95,000 truckloads of sediment that are going to be removed from the river to make way for the dam. That amount of sediment is going to alter the hydrological balance of the river. The dolphins, being extremely sensitive to any changes in their environments will probably not be able to adapt quick enough and die. Currently scientists think that these dolphins will all be dead within a year from the start of the dams construction. This would cause the extinction of these dolphins in the Mekong. Another species lost to the river.

In addition to the loss of these dolphins, the Mekong river will see a massive drop in fish populations. The dam will block migratory fish from swimming north or south. Roughly 70% of the Mekong river's fish population consists of migratory fish. This dam is just 1 of 9 proposed dams to be built along the Mekong in an attempt to increase electricity to one of Asia's poorest countries. However, due to it's location, it will have the most impact on both the dolphins and migratory fish populations. The importance of those fish to the people of Laos is indescribable. These are people who are living in 1 room huts with no electricity, no heat, none of the things that we have in the United States. Unlike many places in the world, these people are not going about taking every last fish from the river. They simply can't. They do not have the technology to keep fish fresh and frozen over long periods of time. They catch what they can eat. The only sustainable way of fishing.

Those fish are the main source of protein for these people and this dam could very well see a drastic cut in that supply. The change in the landscape of the Mekong river could spell the end for an unknown number of fish, marine mammals, and ultimately humans in the local area as well.

Scientists and environmentalists are trying to get the Lao government to change their minds on the construction of this dam, but so far the government has not budged. The government feels that the dams will not cause any significant changes to the migratory fish and even the dolphins. While Laos is an incredibly poor country, the choice to build these dams will in the long run come back to bite them. Sure they will increase electricity to the area, but what is the point of having that electricity if some 60 million people can't afford it due to their livelihoods and reliance on the Mekong to survive gets taken from them. What if the fish just decide to migrate elsewhere entirely? What if the dolphins do die and the tourism to see them goes with them? Would those losses offset the potential gains that the dams will provide? I think they will. I think there will be far more losses for the people of Laos and even the surrounding countries than gains from this project.

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