Hydropower Along the Mekong Continues to Threaten the Future of the River

Via Future Directions International, a report on watergy impact of the future of the Mekong River:

Thailand plans to raise its concerns about erratic flows in the Mekong at the next meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the organisation that monitors the longest river in South-East Asia. In December, the MRC warned that flows in the Mekong could fall by up to a half in early January, as China tested equipment at the Jinghong Dam. In Thailand, those tests led to sudden fluctuations in the waters of the Mekong, which caused problems for both agriculture and fisheries.

According to Somkiat Prajamwong, the director of the Thai Office of Natural Water Resources, communities living along the Mekong have suffered significant economic hardships due to unseasonal flows in the river. While China periodically warns Thailand about its activities on the Mekong, Thailand contends that these warnings are given at the last minute, preventing Thai authorities from preparing communities.


Last year, a severe drought caused water levels in the Mekong to drop to the lowest point in over a century. The dry conditions occurred when monsoon rains failed in late May and June, but were exacerbated when upstream dams in China and Laos withheld water. The Jinghong Dam in China, for instance, halved the amount of water released downstream for “maintenance” purposes. Although monsoon rains eventually fell in July last year, the many hydropower dams along the Mekong have continued to interfere with its water levels. In July, Laos began testing the Xayaburi dam, which is thought to have contributed to the historically low water levels in the Mekong during the testing period. The flow levels were again reduced when releases from the Jinghong dam were stopped for a period in August, while repairs were carried out.

Disruptions to water flows have also caused sudden increases in the Mekong’s water levels, which have also affected the ecology of the river and the communities surrounding it. Sudden water level increases have washed away crops, livestock and equipment, disrupting rural economies. Previous testing at Chinese dams has also caused flash floods downstream, often without warning from the Chinese authorities.

River flows in the Mekong have been erratic since the first hydropower dam was built in China, two decades ago. As a result, seasonal patterns are no longer predictable. Instead, river levels are almost entirely dependent on Chinese dam releases. China currently has 11 large dams along the Mekong River and plans to build several more. Laos has 46 hydropower dams along the Mekong and its tributaries, including five large dams. It ultimately plans to have 140 dams along the river.

Although there have been dire warnings about the ecological and economic problems facing the Mekong region, there has been little concrete action undertaken by riparian states. When the MRC released a landmark report warning that continued dam development would severely reduce fish stocks in the Mekong, three of its four member states refused to endorse it. Downstream countries seem surprisingly unconcerned by the increasingly-visible effects of exploiting the Mekong. Even Vietnam, which grows 90 per cent of its rice in the Mekong delta, is inconsistent in its Mekong policy. Meanwhile, upstream countries continue to profit from developments that are increasingly jeopardising the future of the Mekong.

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About This Blog And Its Author
As the scarcity of water and energy continues to grow, the linkage between these two critical resources will become more defined and even more acute in the months ahead.  This blog is committed to analyzing and referencing articles, reports, and interviews that can help unlock the nascent, complex and expanding linkages between water and energy -- The Watergy Nexus -- and will endeavor to provide a central clearinghouse for insightful articles and comments for all to consider.

Educated at Yale University (Bachelor of Arts - History) and Harvard (Master in Public Policy - International Development), Monty Simus has held a lifelong interest in environmental and conservation issues, primarily as they relate to freshwater scarcity, renewable energy, and national park policy.  Working from a water-scarce base in Las Vegas with his wife and son, he is the founder of Water Politics, an organization dedicated to the identification and analysis of geopolitical water issues arising from the world’s growing and vast water deficits, and is also a co-founder of SmartMarkets, an eco-preneurial venture that applies web 2.0 technology and online social networking innovations to motivate energy & water conservation.  He previously worked for an independent power producer in Central Asia; co-authored an article appearing in the Summer 2010 issue of the Tulane Environmental Law Journal, titled: “The Water Ethic: The Inexorable Birth Of A Certain Alienable Right”; and authored an article appearing in the inaugural issue of Johns Hopkins University's Global Water Magazine in July 2010 titled: “H2Own: The Water Ethic and an Equitable Market for the Exchange of Individual Water Efficiency Credits.”