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Balancing Act on the Mekong: Building Linkages for Sustainable Dam Development

The Mekong Region is a massive ecosystem that is the lifeline for more than 60 million people across six countries: China, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. For the people in the Lower Mekong Basin, it provides more fish to more people than any other river in the world.

Date & Time

Mar. 25, 2013
2:00pm – 3:30pm ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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“One of our intentions is to create new dialogues and discourse” around hydropower development in the Mekong Basin, explained Michael Victor, as he described his work with the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food. During a March 25, 2013 meeting at the Wilson Center Michael and the other speakers argued that in order to balance the conflicting interests and complex environmental impacts of hydropower development in the Mekong Basin, a paradigm shift towards better governance and more sustainable and equitable energy development is imperative.

The speakers at this meeting—cosponsored by the Wilson Center’s China Environment Forum, Environmental Change and Security Program, Asia Program and the Goethe Insitute —examined the progress, challenges and opportunities for more sustainable hydropower development in the Mekong Basin.  

Fair and Balanced? The Impacts of Mekong Hydropower Development

To provide context for the discussion, filmmaker Douglas Varchol began the meeting with a clip from his film, Mekong, after which each of the speakers discussed the existing and expanding detrimental ecological and social impacts of hydropower development in the basin. Over 158 dams have been built or are planned for the basin as a whole, with 37 completed or in planning on the mainstream. Seven dams have already been completed in China on the Upper Mekong (the Lancang), and seven more are under construction. With the Laotian government approval of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos, the first dam on the mainstream of the Lower Mekong, the dominos of dams appear to be cascading all the way down the river.

Dams in the upstream basin are already having negative impacts downstream. According to Michael Victor, when completed the cascade of dams in China on the Lancang will trap 80% of the river’s fine grain silt, and the existing seven dams already have exacerbated flooding downstream during the past two rainy seasons, which is contrary to their purported flood control benefits. Furthermore, there are questions of dam durability. Eighteen Chinese companies are building 39 dams in the Lower Mekong Basin, and according to Victor, the rate of failure of Chinese dams is six times higher than the global average.

Moreover, dam development in the Mekong Basin is significantly impacting local livelihoods, both in the downstream and upstream. Upstream dams have caused the degradation of downstream flood recession farmland. At the same time, dams are damaging to the natural fisheries in the river. As Robert Mather (IUCN) pointed out, the Lower Mekong is the most productive inland fishery in the world, and its productivity depends on flow of water, sediment and nutrients, as well as open rivers for fish migration. Hydropower development harms all of these contributors to fishery productivity and threatens to degrade the main source of animal protein for some 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin. Not only does this threaten the food security of the region, but also the livelihoods of the people who depend on productive fisheries as their only source of income. Villagers resettled due to dam construction often lose their livelihoods and food security.

Signs of Hope: Engagement and Progress

Despite all the pressures from expanding hydropower in the Mekong, Michael and Robert highlighted the successes that their respective organizations have achieved in creating projects that promote new dialogues and capacity building around sustainable energy development. Michael explained how CGIAR has been successfully engaging Chinese hydropower developers as well as NGOs, scholars, and even government officials from the Lower Mekong region to work together on “action research projects” that aim to foster a mutual sense of trust. Some projects have included Chinese hydropower companies and government agencies—Ministry of Commerce and National Development and Reform Commission—and international research and nongovernmental organizations—such as the International Rivers, AusAID, Purdue University, and International Fund for Agricultural Development.

The Hydropower Sustainability Protocol project—implemented by CGIAR, WWF, and the International Hydropower Association has helped promote progress in improving environmental and social impact protection standard.  While this voluntary protocol is not verified by an outside entity (such as the Mekong River Commission), it lays out strong environmental and social impact assessment standards, as well as transparency and community engagement measures. The protocol represents a significant step forward in lessening detrimental impact of dam building as both Chinese and Laotian companies have jointly adopted it.

Robert Mather explained how IUCN formed national working groups in each of the Mekong region countries that have jointly implemented a program called the Mekong Water Dialogues (MWD), which aims to improve water governance, potentially building the capacity of countries in the downstream Mekong to make better decisions vis-à-vis dam building. He pointed to specific successes that have grown out of this program:

  • In Laos, the MWD catalyzed stakeholder input for a new national water policy. In addition, the Lao government has ratified the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands (an intergovernmental treaty that provides the framework for national action and international cooperation to protect wetlands) and set up a Ramsar site designation.
  • In Cambodia, the government has suspended commercial fishing lots in the Tonle Sap to allow fish populations to recover.
  • In Vietnam, the government has passed a new water law and designated three new Ramsar sites.
  • Thailand’s government has passed both a new water law and water protection regulations, and is moving forward on further water policy development.

While all the speakers pointed out that there are some signs of improving water governance within countries in the basin, these efforts are not yet limiting mainstream Mekong hydropower development. Poor governance, lack of transparency, and lack of meaningful cooperation on transboundary issues continue are the key obstacles to halting plans for mainstream hydropower. Plans continue to move ahead despite concerns that the dams will be detrimental to biodiversity and community livelihoods on the mainstream and the tributaries of the Mekong. For example, the Lower Sesan II Dam was recently given final approval for construction despite the fact that this one dam will destroy 9% of the Mekong Basin’s fisheries.

Not wanting to leave the audience with “a sense of hopeless inevitability,” Robert Mather concluded by offering some possible solutions. He suggested that a stronger legal basis for transboundary governance could be realized through ratification of the UN Convention on Tranboundary Water Courses or some regional agreement within ASEAN. He stressed that a mechanism be set up for assessing transboundary impacts and a compensation system for those impacts: it is conceivable that Laos might reconsider building further dams on the Mekong if Vietnam offered it compensation in return for not building dams. In Michael Victor’s words, while “we still have a long way to go,” perhaps a Chinese proverb is a useful to keep our hopes alive: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”


Hosted By

China Environment Forum

Since 1997, the China Environment Forum's mission has been to forge U.S.-China cooperation on energy, environment, and sustainable development challenges. We play a unique nonpartisan role in creating multi-stakeholder dialogues around these issues.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Asia Program

The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region.   Read more

Global Risk and Resilience Program

The Global Risk and Resilience Program (GRRP) seeks to support the development of inclusive, resilient networks in local communities facing global change. By providing a platform for sharing lessons, mapping knowledge, and linking people and ideas, GRRP and its affiliated programs empower policymakers, practitioners, and community members to participate in the global dialogue on sustainability and resilience. Empowered communities are better able to develop flexible, diverse, and equitable networks of resilience that can improve their health, preserve their natural resources, and build peace between people in a changing world.  Read more

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