Protecting livelihoods amidst Lower Mekong dam proposals

Chris Mesiku

Mekong River, the longest watercourse in Southeast Asia, is under intense development pressure. While China has an extensive hydropower programme underway on the Upper Mekong, as yet there are no dams on the river’s lower mainstream. However, up to 12 additional mainstream dams have been proposed for the Lower Mekong and these would generate substantial energy and wealth for the beneficiaries, especially for the people of Laos and Cambodia. Scientists, including World Agroforestry Centre’s Dr Jianchu Xu, assessed the governance of the basin by analyzing the primary drivers of change. They found that, in combination with Chinese dams, the Lower Mekong hydropower cascade, if built, will alter the natural flow patterns of the river. They concluded that the hydropower project will most likely disrupt the fisheries and other ecosystem services. The team has called for a governance approach that is inclusive of the needs of millions of river-dependent stakeholders who are also the least powerful.

The study published in the highly credited Frontiers in Ecology and Environment journal states that new dam proposals are driven largely by population growth and rural ’urban migration. According to Dr Xu, the dam developments in the Lower Mekong are also being driven by Laos and Cambodia who are amongst the least developed countries in the world. Their developmental needs make energy and food security a major concern especially given that food demand in the region is expected to double by 2050. The drivers of the dam proposals are pushing economic investments in the region to record highs even as climate change is predicted to alter baseline river flows, temperatures and agricultural productivity. They report that, climate change could lead to “19-38% of Vietnam's Mekong delta being submerged.”

"Studies show that by 2050, rising water levels in the Mekong delta along with other factors will lead to decreasing food capacity," says Jianchu. Against this volatile background, “there remains weak national governance, limited capacity to perform high quality environmental assessments of dams, and little deliberative decision-making” says Xu. “Impact assessments of development in the region are often nationally constructed and lack links between upstream and downstream impacts.”

In his opinion, this lack of links exists because “there is little regional discussion of the transboundary ecological or social implications of dam building.”

According to the scientists, the key to improving decision-making throughout the delta is to concentrate on water governance. The reason is, the Mekong flows through various countries making it an easy entry point for national and transboundary negotiations. In this regard, the Mekong River Commission is in a good position to help countries to facilitate joint exploration of specific dam building scenarios and its powers should be extended to help states negotiate water resource development.

Focusing on water governance also presents an opportunity for all countries through which the river flows, to share data. There are readily available data on water use monitoring, real-time flood forecasting, and maintenance of flows on the mainstream and plenty of water quality data. “The end objective is to encourage collaborative water governance so that ecological functions will be conserved and living standards improved,” Jianchu says.

The study found that a culture of experimentation using negotiation and dialogue needs to be encouraged throughout the Mekong. It recommends that for now, a tool designed to assist river basin management can be used as an initial point of dialogue and negotiations. It is called the Basin-wide Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Tool.

In future, the scientists suggest the use of environmental flow assessments, risk management mechanisms, benefit-sharing mechanisms, alternative energy futures, power trading and quality aspects of production and trade as a means to continue growing the culture of negotiations and dialogue.

Although water management features strongly as a means for multinational negotiations in the Mekong, Jianchu Xu notes, “There are also inextricable links across food, energy and all the drivers of change in the Lower Mekong.” These links extend across scale and sovereign state boundaries. These links can support efforts that nurture trust building between and among all Mekong countries, turning environmental and social risks into development and security opportunities.

Access the full publication here.