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Hydropower developments along the main stem of the Mekong River and its tributaries cause transboundary effects within the Mekong Basin Region, which comprises parts of six countries. On the one hand, the provision of hydropower triggers economic development and helps to meet the rising energy demand of the Mekong riparian countries, especially China, Thailand, and Vietnam. On the other hand, the negative impact of dam construction, mainly altered water flow and sediment load, has severe impacts on the environment and the livelihoods of the rural Mekong population. Several discrepancies exist in the needs, demands, and challenges of upstream versus downstream countries. Against the common apprehension that downstream countries are powerlessly exposed to mainly negative impacts whereas upstream countries unilaterally benefit from hydropower, the authors argue that upstream–downstream relations are not really clear-cut. This conclusion is based on a consideration of the complex power play between Mekong riparians, with a focus on recent power trade interactions. The article investigates the consequences of hydropower dams for the Mekong region as well as the role of supranational players, such as the Mekong River Commission and the Greater Mekong Subregion Initiative, on the hydropower debate. It is not nations that are the winners or losers in the hydropower schemes in the Mekong, but rather parts of the riparian population: a few influential and powerful elites versus the large mass of rural poor.
1 23
Sustainability Science
ISSN 1862-4065
Sustain Sci
DOI 10.1007/s11625-012-0195-z
Understanding the impact of hydropower
developments in the context of upstream–
downstream relations in the Mekong river
Claudia Kuenzer, Ian Campbell, Marthe
Roch, Patrick Leinenkugel, Vo Quoc
Tuan & Stefan Dech
1 23
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Understanding the impact of hydropower developments
in the context of upstream–downstream relations
in the Mekong river basin
Claudia Kuenzer Ian Campbell Marthe Roch
Patrick Leinenkugel Vo Quoc Tuan Stefan Dech
Received: 31 May 2012 / Accepted: 21 October 2012
Springer Japan 2012
Abstract Hydropower developments along the main
stem of the Mekong River and its tributaries cause trans-
boundary effects within the Mekong Basin Region, which
comprises parts of six countries. On the one hand, the
provision of hydropower triggers economic development
and helps to meet the rising energy demand of the Mekong
riparian countries, especially China, Thailand, and
Vietnam. On the other hand, the negative impact of dam
construction, mainly altered water flow and sediment load,
has severe impacts on the environment and the livelihoods
of the rural Mekong population. Several discrepancies exist
in the needs, demands, and challenges of upstream versus
downstream countries. Against the common apprehension
that downstream countries are powerlessly exposed to
mainly negative impacts whereas upstream countries uni-
laterally benefit from hydropower, the authors argue that
upstream–downstream relations are not really clear-cut.
This conclusion is based on a consideration of the complex
power play between Mekong riparians, with a focus on
recent power trade interactions. The article investigates the
consequences of hydropower dams for the Mekong region
as well as the role of supranational players, such as the
Mekong River Commission and the Greater Mekong
Subregion Initiative, on the hydropower debate. It is not
nations that are the winners or losers in the hydropower
schemes in the Mekong, but rather parts of the riparian
population: a few influential and powerful elites versus the
large mass of rural poor.
Keywords Mekong river basin Hydropower
development Dams River ecology Mekong River
Commission Greater Mekong Subregion Riparians
Electricity trade Power grid
The Mekong is the world’s ninth largest river, flowing for
over 4,900 km from its source on the Qinghai Tibet Plateau
at 5,200 m elevation to the Mekong delta in Vietnam. On its
way it passes through six countries: China, Myanmar, Laos,
Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The riparian population
within the basin comprises over 72 million inhabitants
(Campbell 2009). Both economic wealth and population,
particularly in the urban centres, have grown remarkably.
This dynamic is accompanied by a growing demand for
electricity, first and foremost in China, Thailand, and
Vietnam. China needs power to sustain its growth in GDP,
still above 6–7 %; Thailand’s government estimates that the
country’s electricity demands will double to 58,000 mega-
watts (MW) by 2021 (EGAT 2008); Vietnam’s government
Handled by Soontak Lee, Yeungnam University, Korea.
C. Kuenzer (&)P. Leinenkugel S. Dech
German Earth Observation Centre, EOC, German Aerospace
Centre, DLR, Oberpfaffenhofen, 82234 Wessling, Germany
I. Campbell
GHD Australia, Melbourne, Australia
I. Campbell
Monash University, Melbourne, Australia
M. Roch
Centre for Geoinformatics, University of Salzburg,
Salzburg, Austria
V. Q. Tuan
College of Environmental Sciences,
Can Tho University, Can Tho, Vietnam
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DOI 10.1007/s11625-012-0195-z
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estimates a quadrupling to 40,700 MW by 2015 (EVN
2006). Due to so far limited exploitation of the river sys-
tem’s hydropower potential (currently only 10 %), the
Mekong countries’ governments foster large-scale hydro-
power projects within their territories. In public media as
well as in the scientific literature these developments are
often analysed or discussed under the assumption that
downstream countries are powerlessly exposed to the
actions of unilaterally benefiting upstream nations (e.g.
Garcia 2012). However, much of the information required
to judge the complex situation is still missing. According to
the Vietnamese Ministry of Natural Resources and the
Environment, MONRE, ‘‘Viet Nam and its riparian neigh-
bours do not have an adequate scientific understanding for
informed decision making on Mekong projects; especially
with respect to downstream effects of upstream dams.’’
(MONRE 2012:1).
The goal of this paper is to provide a comprehensive
overview and presentation of the upstream–downstream
relations of the riparian countries in the light of past
and present hydropower development and its expected
future impact. The questions addressed by this paper
What is the geopolitical and socio-economic setting for
the hydropower debate of the Mekong riparians?
What defining physicogeographical factors influence
the hydropower potential in the Mekong Basin?
What is the prevailing public notion concerning
upstream and downstream roles in the current hydro-
power debate?
What are the impacts of upstream dams on downstream
localities with respect to water flow?
What are the consequences of upstream dams in
downstream localities with respect to sediment flow?
Are upstream–downstream interests clear cut? Are
downstream countries powerlessly exposed to unilater-
ally benefiting upstream nations?
Which players most influence the hydropower debate?
Current geopolitical and socio-economic setting
of the six Mekong riparians
Each of the six Mekong riparians has a complex history of
power relations with its neighbours, which still influences
their perceptions and dialogue. However, the six countries
that share a common border, natural resources, and a long
history of frequently alternating war and peace currently
experience more peace and stability in the region than at any
point in their history. Power distribution within the Mekong
is defined particularly by strategic position. Upstream posi-
tions provide considerable power, and China’s additional
power, especially in political, military, and economic terms,
complicates the situation (Ratner 2003; Backer 2006; Molle
and Floch 2008).
The relationship between China and Vietnam, for
instance, is strongly impacted by Vietnam’s resistance to
its giant northern neighbour, which shaped today’s
Vietnamese national identity. In 112 BC northern Vietnam
was incorporated in the Chinese Han Empire, and China
ruled Vietnam for over 1,000 years until AD 939 (Dosch
and Vuving 2008). In the late 1970s, as a consequence of
Vietnam’s intrusion into Cambodia, China and western
countries cut off Vietnam’s development aid, and in 1979
China invaded northern Vietnam. A brief but bloody border
war (Third Indochina War) was fought. China argues that
the reasons for the invasion were mistreatment of ethnic
Chinese in Vietnam, the Vietnamese occupation of the
Spratly Islands, as well as Vietnamese intrusion into
Cambodia. Even today, these countries still have disputes
over the Spratly and Paracel Islands in the South China Sea
(Dosch and Vuving 2008). At the same time, China has
been Vietnam’s top trading partner since 2005, with a trade
volume exceeding 40 billion USD in 2011. Given the long
history of conflict, mutual distrust characterises the bilat-
eral relationship—and probably will continue to do so for
many more decades (Will 2010). The situation is not eased
by China’s position as a very powerful and the most
upstream Mekong country versus Vietnam’s location fur-
thest downstream, making it the most vulnerable of all
Mekong nations (Ratner 2003).
Other riparian relations are similarly difficult. In the
1950s and 1960s border conflicts characterised the rela-
tionship between Thais and Cambodians, Thai and Lao,
and Cambodians and Vietnamese (Makim 2002). Viet-
namese–Cambodian relations remain difficult due to the
Vietnamese invasion during the Pol Pot regime and to
currently increasing Vietnamese economic influence.
Thailand actively supported the Khmer Rouge. It thus has
pre-programmed rivalries with Vietnam that broke open in
the 1970s and 1980s. Thailand—the only Mekong riparian
that had never been under colonial rule—now welcomes
the integration of China into riparian discussions as it
hopes ‘to build coalitions against potential efforts to pre-
vent large-scale development upstream’ (Schmeier 2010:
36). Despite historic grudges, these current close Sino–Thai
relations are also a source of anger for Vietnam. Thailand
and Myanmar also had and have substantial border-related
disputes relating to cross-border movement of minorities
associated with forced relocation (Grundy-Warr and Wong
Siew Yin 2002). Another conflict line exists between
Thailand and Laos, as Thailand supported the United States
while Laos followed a Communist path during the Indo-
china wars. Up to the present day, several border disputes
remain unresolved (Schmeier 2010). Furthermore, Laos’
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increasing economic dependence on Thailand is observed
with suspicion. Thailand purchases electricity and natural
resources largely from Laos, leading to a deterioration of
that country’s natural resources. Cambodia goes even fur-
ther, and accuses Thailand of illegally exploiting natural
resources on its territory (Schmeier 2010).
Myanmar is the only country that—possibly also due to
its long-term isolation—has so far played a relatively small
role in the riparian power play; however, a rapidly
increasing one. Still strongly dependent on China’s eco-
nomic cooperation and development aid (Schmeier 2010),
the resource-rich country is undergoing re-definition. Many
recent Lower Mekong Basin and Southeast Asia summits
have taken place without inviting China, as the US and
other countries seek allies in Southeast Asia to counter-
balance China’s dominance in the region. On 30 September
2011 the Myanmar government declared the stop of any
further construction of the Chinese-funded 3.6 billion USD
Myitsone hydropower dam on the Irrawaddy River due to
environmental, ethnic, and cultural concerns (Qin 2012).
Numerous further examples of wars, disputes, and con-
flicts between the countries can be cited (Sneddon and Fox
2007; Gainsborough 2009). Before looking at Mekong
riparian cooperation or confrontation with respect to
hydropower development, it is important to bear in mind
these ‘shadows’ of historic or current dissonance. Many
public national-media reports on Mekong-related develop-
ments are coloured by prevailing attitudes of mistrust, fear
Table 1 Demographic, economic and energy related characteristics of the six Mekong riparians
China Myanmar Thailand Laos Cambodia Vietnam
Overall population, 2010
1,338.3 48.0 69.1 6.2 14.1 86.9
Population Mekong Basin
Lower MB, 2007 in Mio (total 60Mio)
23.1 5.2 13.0 18.7
Share of Mekong-population in %
16 1 34 7 14 28
GDP, 2010
In mio. current USD 5,878.6 42,953 318.9 7,5 11.3 103.6
Annual growth in % 10.3 5.3 7.8 8.4 6.7 6.8
Per capita (current USD) 4,392.6 701.9 4,612.8 1,208.3 802.3 1,191.4
Energy consumption
Average annual growth in energy consumption, 1993–2005 in % 9.2
8.5 6.6 8.2 1.1 10.2
Per capita electric power consumption, 2005 kWh, (share of residential
sector in total electricity consumption)
78 (40.0) 1,950
56 (52.0) 573
Fossil fuel energy consumption (% of total) 86.9 31.0 80.6 No
29.7 54.0
Alternative and nuclear energy (% of total energy use) 3.5 2.2 0.6 No
0.1 3.8
Combustible renewables and waste (% of total energy) 9.6 66.8 18.7 No
69.6 41.8
Hydro-power projects
Mekong main stem
Finalised number 4
––– –
Planned number 4
––92 –
Mekong tributaries
Finalised number 4 7 16 1 14
Planned number 73 13 3
The weighted average annual per capita consumption in the Greater Mekong subregion (GMS) is 920 kWh (World: 2,701 kWh, OECD:
8,795 kWh, US: 14,240 kWh)
World Bank (2011)
MRC (2010)
Will (2010)
ADB (2009)
MRC (2009): Lower Mekong Hydropower Database
Economy Watch (2012)
Yunnan Province of PRC
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and envy (Gainsborough 2009, Dosch and Vuving 2008,
Schmeier 2010).
Table 1summarises the current demographic, economic
and energy related characteristics of the six Mekong ripa-
rians as compiled from different sources.
The Mekong region needs—and currently is in the
middle of—a regional debate on the balance between
economic progress and development on the one hand, and
the need for ecological protection and preservation on the
other (Grumbine et al. 2012; Moder et al. 2012; Renaud
and Kuenzer 2012). This debate also addresses the dis-
crepancy between upstream and downstream needs and
demands in this transboundary river basin. Upstream
development influences downstream regions directly and
indirectly, be it in the context of impacts on water flow and
sediment availability, river-ecology and biodiversity, or in
an economic context of navigability, electricity provision
and monetary flow, not to mention the impact of hydro-
power development on the geopolitical landscape of allies.
The Lower Mekong Basin (LMB), excluding China, has
an estimated hydropower potential of 30,000 MW, while
that of the Upper Mekong Basin (UMB) is nearly
29,000 MW (MRC 2010; Dore et al. 2007). Nearly 20 % of
this potential has been exploited so far, including current
construction. Over ten additional main stem projects are
planned for the LMB to exploit the river’s hydropower
generating capacity more effectively to meet the region’s
power demands, which are expected to rise 7 % over the next
20 years (MRC 2010). Hydropower is a lucrative energy
market, and the governments and media of countries with a
potential for dams promote hydropower as a source of green
and clean energy, superior to dangerous or polluting nuclear
or coal-based energy. Furthermore, the greening of so far
drought-prone regions (e.g. Thailand’s Isan province, with
large, ongoing water diversion projects) is promoted.
Technocratic visions, e.g. of Laos’ becoming ‘the battery of
Southeast Asia’ (BBC News 2012), and the implementation
of a gigantic power grid and Mekong navigation schemes,
dominate many public communications.
Physicogeographical factors influencing
the hydropower potential: landscape units, hydrology,
and river resources of the Mekong basin
The pan-shaped Mekong basin (795,000 km
) starts as a
steep narrow valley in China (where the river is called the
Lancangjiang), remaining mountainous but less incised in
Laos and Thailand and widening 4,000 km from its source
to the alluvial lowlands of Cambodia and southern Viet-
nam. Here—in the Mekong delta—the river splits into
individual distributary channels. The Khone waterfalls in
Laos’ Champasak province mark the transition between the
Mekong of the hills and the Mekong of the plains. Gupta
(2009) divides the basin into seven physical units, as shown
in Fig. 1. These are the mountainous panhandle (river
drops 4,500 m in the first 2,400 km), the mountains of
northern Laos and Thailand (many tributaries join the
Mekong), the Mekong Lowland (including the Tonle Sap
Lake region), the Korat Upland, the Cardamom and
Elephant Hills, the Annamite Mountain Range, and the
Mekong delta. The delta covers an area of 70,000 km
elevations mostly below 3 m above sea level and experi-
ences regular annual flooding (Gstaiger et al. 2012). It is
dominated by rice farming activities, fishery, and aqua-
culture as well as coastal mangrove forests (Kuenzer et al.
2011a,b, Kuenzer and Renaud 2012, Vo Quoc et al. 2012,
Kuenzer 2010, Leinenkugel et al. 2011), and has a popu-
lation of about 18 million.
Ideal and exclusive locations for the construction of
large hydropower dams are the mountainous parts of the
basin in China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand. Deeply
incised river valleys or at least solid bedrock on both sides
are needed to install dams and flood the hinterland without
endangering downstream areas during the fill-up period.
As depicted in Fig. 2most of the annual water yield of
the Mekong River stems from the Laos–Vietnamese
Annamite Range east of the river, as well as from the
Laotian and Cambodian parts of the Mekong Lowland. It is
important to note that, before any dams were built, only
about 18 % of the river’s overall water originated in the
panhandle in China (Gupta 2009).
‘The rest of Mekong’s annual water discharge (82 %)
comes mainly from four sources: (1) the mountains of
northern Laos through a number of tributaries; (2) the
Southern Mountains via the San, Kong and Srepok; (3) the
Mun Chi System, draining a large part of the Korat Upland;
and (4) the drainage outflow from the Tonle Sap (Gupta
2009: 47). Adamson et al. (2009) state that only 16 % of
the total discharge of the Lower Mekong River comes from
China and 2 % from Myanmar. Laos is the main water
source for the Mekong.
Mekong River hydrology is dominated by a single wet-
season flow peak, leading to a 20-fold increase in discharge
in August and September. Compared to catchment size, the
floods are unusually large (Adamson et al. 2009). Annual
floods are natural occurrences in the lower basin flood-
plains. Fluctuating between terrestrial and aquatic condi-
tions, they are characterised by predictable single-peak
flood pulses of large amplitude, bringing sediment-bound
nutrients and therefore supporting immense biodiversity.
Some authors claim the Tonle Sap and the Mekong
floodplains to be the most productive freshwater ecosys-
tems in the world (Kummu et al. 2010), describing the fish
yield in the Tonle Sap (139–230 kg ha
) as being
up to 850 % higher than in the floodplains of, e.g. the
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Amazon or the Brahmaputra (van Zalinge 2002). At least
781 species of freshwater fish are known for the Mekong
(Vaidyanathan 2011); Ziv et al. (2012) even identified 877
freshwater species. Regional species richness is highest in
the Mekong delta with 484 species, and lowest in Chinese
headwaters with only 24 species (Ziv et al. 2012). The diet
of the Mekong Basin population depends strongly on the
area’s natural resources. In Cambodia, 80 % of people’s
protein intake stems from fish caught in the Mekong and its
tributaries (Will 2010). The MRC (2010) reports that LMB
fisheries alone yield over 2.6 metric tons/year with a total
value exceeding 7 billion USD/year.
Floods bringing sediment and enabling irrigation and
fishing are considered to have a net benefit for the local
population. It is only anomalous events that lead to human
suffering (Nikula 2008). The year-2000 flood led to over
800 casualties, and economic damage exceeded 400 mil-
lion USD. Even if such flooding does not occur every year,
they are still devastating for the people affected. However,
changes in pulse variability usually have a much stronger
impact on the natural resources and rural population than
do extreme events. The most vulnerable parts of the pop-
ulation are usually rural farmers and fishermen in the lower
lying parts of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, where
Fig. 1 Right The Mekong
Basin: physical units (own map
based on MODIS 2010 rainy
season data between April and
October, processed by P.
Leinenkugel, and Gupta 2009,
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25–40 % live below the poverty line (Nikula 2008;
Grumbine and Xu 2011).
Mekong hydropower dams in the current debate
Bakker (1999) assessed the politics of hydropower in the
Mekong. Since that time a lot has happened. In recent
years, China alone has proposed a cascade of eight Mekong
mainstream dams inside China, aiming to take advantage
of an 810 m drop over a 750 km river section, envisaging
the supply of 15.6 GW per year. The cascade is often
termed the ‘Chinese cascade’, ‘Yunnan cascade’, or
‘Lancangjiang cascade’. Construction started in the 1980s,
and four of these dams—namely the Manwan, the
Dachaoshan, the Xiaowan, and the Jinghong—were com-
pleted in 1986, 2003, 2009, and 2011, respectively. In the
tallest one—Xiaowan (292 m high)—the first generator
went into operation in 2009; the third and last one will be
installed in 2013. Six of the eight planned dams will be
Fig. 2 Annual water yield of
the Lower Mekong Basin (MRC
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operational by 2012 (Ra
¨nen et al. 2012). Once the cas-
cade is in full operation, over 23 km
of reservoir storage
will have been established (MRC 2010). Additionally, a
further 20?tributary dams are planned in the Upper
Mekong Basin (UMB, Fig. 3).
At the same time, the LMB alone already hosts 36 dams
and a further 60–100 are in the planning here as well
¨nen et al. 2012). Such large-scale projects always also
mean drastic fragmentation of river systems and interven-
tions in the ecosystem and livelihood of the rural popula-
tion. These inevitably lead to environmental and social
costs, making these ambitious hydropower plans highly
controversial and politically charged (Fu et al. 2010;
¨nen et al. 2012).
The dams will provide renewable energy and jobs, and
can maybe contribute to better flood control in the wet
season and a greater water supply in the dry season.
Increased navigation options (Methonen et al. 2008b),
extra irrigation opportunities, and lower salt water intrusion
into the Mekong delta might be other assets. The electricity
produced will be able to enter the Mekong 13-Region
electricity grid (He et al. 2009). The World Bank (WB) and
the Asian Development Bank (ADB) strongly support
schemes and projects of cross-border electricity trade,
especially fostering UMB supply to LMB nations. Broad
opposition, however, comes from INGOS, NGOs, scien-
tists, the public media, and some political sources. Many
proposed dams pose direct risks to the livelihood of rural
communities, not only in the vicinity of the projects. In
Thailand, opposition to large-scale power stations was so
strong that the government increasingly favours importing
hydropower from its neighbours Laos and Myanmar,
thereby outsourcing the social and environmental impact.
The negative impacts are clearly evident and can be seen in
many completed projects where local communities have
been affected directly by a loss of land or access to fisheries
and other natural resources due to filling of the reservoir
and construction of transmission lines, roads, and project
facilities. Middleton et al. (2009) report numerous cases
where dam construction led to the impoverishment of local
communities. For the Hoa Binh Dam project in Vietnam,
for instance, which was initiated in 1979 but only finalised
15 years later, between 50,000 and 60,000 people (mainly
ethnic minorities) had to be resettled with hardly any
compensation. The planned Son La Dam will require the
resettlement of up to 100,000 people, again mainly of
ethnic minority. In Laos, the Nam Song Diversion Dam
affected 13 villages through deterioration of vitally
important natural resources and assets, including severe
declines in fisheries, and erosion and flooding of agricul-
tural land (Middleton et al. 2009). In Cambodia, the
Kamchay Dam, currently under construction, will flood
approximately 2,000 ha protected forest in the Bokor
National Park, which is the habitat of 31 mammals and 10
endangered species (Middleton et al. 2009).
In the foreground of the current debate is—next to the
ever dominant topic of Chinese dams—the proposed (and
officially stopped) large-scale project of the 3.8 billion
USD Xayaburi dam in Laos. This project would create a
49 km
reservoir of 60 km length (Vaidyanathan 2011)at
the Mekong main stem. The 1,260 MW dam would lead to
forced migration of 18 villages, block migratory fish,
Fig. 3 The cascade of dams in
the Upper Mekong Basin
(UMB) including (from
upstream to downstream) the
Gonguoqiao, Xiaowan,
Manwan, Dachaoshan,
Nuozhadu, Jinghong,
Ganlamba, and Mengsong
dams. Source: Walling (2009)
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interfere with navigation, and impede nutrient-rich sedi-
ment from settling in the Mekong delta and the Tonle Sap
floodplain. At the same time the dam would earn 3–4 bil-
lion USD per year for the developer, CH. Karnchang
Public Company of Thailand, with about 30 % of the
revenue flowing to the Laotian government (Vaidyanathan
2011). The MRC Strategic Environmental Assessment
(SEA) report (2010) estimates the environmental costs of
fisheries and agricultural losses at 500 million USD a year,
with a domino effect on nutrition and food security. Even
though many dams have built-in fish ladders, those planned
for Xayaburi are not considered sufficient. Several impor-
tant species require a free flow of the river, among them the
tropical Asian catfish, Pangasius krempfi. The Mekong
region’s annual catch of 2.1 million tons could drop to
1.4 million tons if all proposed main stem dams are built
(Vaidyanathan 2011). This impact on food security would
lead to a loss of livelihood not only for over 1 million
Cambodians (Mather and Brunner 2010). However,
Xayaburi is not the only Laos project that will probably be
finalised within the next decade. In September 2010, the
Laos government requested the Mekong River Commission
to approve additional main stem dams in the LMB. If fi-
nalised, they would generate 15,000 MW power, and
income generation might reach 3.7 billion USD/year
(Grumbine and Xu 2011).
Another prominent—probably the most prominent—
topic in public media concerns the large-scale transboun-
dary impact of the main stem cascade in China. The dams
are held responsible for the alteration of the overall
Mekong river flow. Optimistic expectations were that the
dams would lead to positive inter-annual flow regulation or
attenuation (releasing water in the dry season, storing water
in the wet seasons). Against this perception stands the
downstream countries’ apprehension of an exacerbation of
inter-annual flow differences, which in the long-term may
imply high environmental and social costs due to bank
erosion, water shortage, increased irrigation challenges,
and shifts in biodiversity. However, despite the tense
geopolitical perceptions of China’s neighbours, it is
important to separate polemics from facts. ‘‘There are a lot
of accusations that the dams in China are exacerbating the
current low water levels, but the Chinese have informed
downstream nations that they will not fill any reservoir
during the dry season’’ says Roger Mollot, a fisheries
expert with the World Wildlife Fund, WWF, in Vientiane,
Laos. However, much suspicion is based on China’s refusal
to disclose the operating rules of their dams. Even though
the 2004 downstream droughts were clearly not induced by
the dams (Campbell and Manusthiparom 2004), and the
August 2008 floods were also not triggered or aggravated
by the dams (MRC 2008), people and local media in
downstream countries were quick to blame China when
they saw their livelihoods affected. TV and print media
incorrectly spurred widespread anger against the powerful
giant (e.g. Garcia 2012; Campbell 2009). Table 2gives an
overview of current and planned hydropower projects in
the Mekong Basin.
At the same time, it is often overlooked that the
numerous main stem dams also planned in Laos, Cambodia
and Vietnam would certainly have similar regional (albeit
different local) effects, and would aggravate the challenges
presented below. Common to all dam cascades is that they
turn the river into a fragmented chain of slow moving water
and reservoirs, changing the flow regime of a catchment.
Of severe concern is that they hinder migratory fish in their
upstream/downstream movement. Of the 11 planned Laos
main stem dams, only 3 incorporate fish ladders and even
these have inadequate designs (Grumbine and Xu 2011;
Grumbine et al. 2012). Migratory fish lucky enough to pass
a ladder find themselves in a slow- to non-flowing reser-
voir, lose their orientation, and spawn in the wrong place.
Their fry are then easy prey for larger reservoir species.
Loss of migratory fish would lead to decreasing protein
availability for the local population. The WWF (2012)
postulates that this loss would be compensated by live-
stock, leading to land cover and land use changes and
endangering natural forests and shrublands, which would
be turned into fodder crop cultivation areas and pastures.
In addition to the main stem dams, hundreds of Mekong
tributary dams exist or are in planning. These tributary
dams are especially located in Laos, Thailand, and
Vietnam. While main stem dams require international
consultation before construction, tributary dams are under
only national jurisdiction. Their construction necessitates
merely ‘notification’ to the Mekong River Commission
(Ziv et al. 2012). The largest 27 planned tributary dams in
(mainly) Laos and (partially) Vietnam alone may have an
extreme impact on fish biomass and species composition.
According to Ziv et al. (2012), the Lower Se San 2 dam
could lead to a 9.3 % drop in fish biomass basin-wide. The
authors modelled a clear non-linear trade-off between
hydropower and fish biomass, stating that fish biomass
decreases by 0.3 % or 1,700 tons/year for each terawatt
hour generated per year (up to 14 TWh/a). They conclude
that ‘‘construction of all planned tributary dams, nearly all
within Laos national borders, would have graver impacts
on fish biodiversity basin-wide and on the Cambodian and
Vietnamese floodplain’s fish productivity, than the com-
bined impact of the six upper main stem dams on the lower
Mekong River, including Xayaburi’’ (Ziv et al. 2012: p. 2).
It is largely Chinese companies such as Sinohydro
Corporation or Dongfeng Electric Corporation that are to
finance many of the planned LMB dams (Grumbine and Xu
2011; Matthews 2012). However, Thailand also has a large
stake, especially in Lao developments. The government of
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Table 2 Overview of complete (C), ongoing (O), and planned (P) hydropower projects in the Mekong Basin as compiled from different sources.
Projects [10 MV, Mekong Mainstream (M)
commission year
Laos Cambodia
Nam Ngum 1 C 1971 149 O Chum O 1992 1
Theun Hinboun C 1998 210 LowerSeSan2/SrePok 2 P 2016 480
Nam Theun 2 C 2009 1,075 Battambang 1 P 24
Nam Ngum 2 O 2010 615 Battambang 2 P 22
Xekaman 1 C 2011 290 Sambor (M) P 2020 3,300
Don Sahong (M) P 2013 360 Stung Treng (M) P 980
Pak Chom (M) P 2017 1,079 Pursat 1 P 100
Pak Beng (M) P 2016 1,230 Pursat 2 P 10
Luangprabang (M) P 2016 1,410 Lower Se San 3 P 243
Sanakham (M) P 2018 1,200 Prek Liang 1 P 35
Xayaburi (M) O 2019 1,285 Prek Liang 2 P 25
Ban Kum (M) P 2017 1,872 Lower Sre Pok 3 P 204
Pak Lay (M) P 2016 1,320 Lower Sre Pok 4 P 143
Lat Sua (M) P 2018 686 Stung Sen P 23
Existing projects 2009 (M) 16 (0) 3,220 Existing projects 2009 (M) 1 (0) 1
Planned projects until 2020 (M) 84 (9) 17,572 Planned projects until 2020 (M) 13 (2) 5,589
All projects until 2020 (M) 100 (9) 20,793 All projects until 2020 (M) 14 (2) 5,590
China Myanmar
Manwan (M) C 1986 1,500 Kyaington 1 O 1994 3
Dachaoshan (M) C 2003 1,350 Hkun O 6
Xiaowan (M) C 2009 4,200 Mae Sai O 12.5
Jinghong (M) C 2011 1,750 Mae Kok O 294
Gonguoqiao (M) P/O 2012 750
Nuozhadu (M) P/O 2014 5,500
Mengsong (M) P/O
Ganlanba (M) P/O 150
Existing projects 2009 (M) 4 (4) 8,800 Existing projects 2009 (M) 4 (0) 315.5
Planned projects until 2020 M) 4 (4) 6,400 Planned projects until 2020 (M)
All projects until 2020 (M) 8 (8) 15,200 All projects until 2020 (M) 4 (0) 315.5
Thailand Vietnam
Chulabhorn O 1972 40 Dray Hlinh 1 O 1990 12
Huai Kum O 1982 1.2 Hoa Binh O 1994 1,920
Nam Pung O 1965 6.3 Yali Falls O 2001 720
Pak Mun O 1994 136 Se San 3 ?3A O 2006/2007 356
Sirindhorn O 1971 36 Plei Krong O 2008 100
Ubol Ratana O 1966 25.2 Se San 4 C 2009 360
Lam Ta Khong P.S. O 2001 500 Buon Kuop C 2009 280
Sre Pok 3 C 2009 220
Upper Kontum P 2011 250
Duc Xuyen P 49
Son La P 2012 2400
Existing projects 2009 (M) 7 (0) 744.7 Existing projects 2009 (M) 14 (0) 4,204
Planned projects until 2020 (M) Planned projects until 2020 (M) 3 (0) 2,699
All projects until 2020 (M) 7 (0) 744.7 All projects until 2020 (M) 17 (0) 6,903
Sources: Ringler (2001), MRC (2009): Lower Mekong Hydropower Database, MRC (2010), Wikipedia, 2012
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Laos has committed itself to supply 7,000 MW to Thailand
by 2015. Matthews (2012) explains that different drivers
and factors have ‘‘created opportunities for powerful state
and private actors from Thailand and Laos to mobilise
political, institutional and economic power to control the
benefits of hydropower while the social and environmental
impacts are ignored, thereby constituting a form of water
grabbing’’ (p. 393).
Since so far no main stem dams outside of China have
been completed, only the impact of the Chinese cascade is
depicted and reviewed here. Addressing further impacts of
tributary dams (other than those presented above) would
exceed the scope of this paper.
Assessing the impact of upstream Chinese dams
on downstream water levels
Several authors have attempted to assess the impact of the
finalised upstream Chinese dams. The Singaporean authors
Lu et al. (2008) investigated the impact of the Manwan
dam on downstream water levels at the Chiang Saen and
Chiang Khong stations (time series from the 1960s up to
2006), the gauge stations nearest to the Chinese dams.
They concluded that both hydrological regimes were
influenced by the operation of the Manwan dam, with
impacts being more evident in the dry season than in the
wet season. It was found that the dam led to a reduction in
low water levels and discharge, while high water level
alterations were insignificant. This result contradicts the
hopes of downstream nations with regard to inter-annual
flow regulation (but one has to consider that part of the
time span investigated by Lu et al. 2008 included the fill-
ing-up period) as well as the findings of Chapman and He
(1996). They suspected (much earlier, and without scien-
tific evidence) that the impact of the smaller Manwan and
Dachaoshan dams would be insignificant and that changes
would be noted only after the completion of the much
larger Xiaowan dam. They expected the changes to be
positive—dry season flows could increase about 70 % as
far as 1,000 km downstream in Vientiane, and would thus
be beneficial for irrigation, navigation, and flood control
(Lu et al. 2008). Numerous other authors have also pub-
lished their findings on the Manwan dam’s impact. Kummu
and Varis (2007) found that mean flow increased at Luang
Prabang and Pakse compared to the pre-dam period, and
they expect increasing dry season flows and decreasing wet
season flows. Lu and Siew (2006) found no significant
change in mean discharge after the construction of Man-
wan, except during the ‘infilling’ period, but they under-
lined a change in amplitude: annual minimum discharge
decreased at Chiang Saen and Luang Prabang. Further-
more, dry season fluctuations increased considerably, while
variability within the wet season remained unchanged.
Osborne (2004) expected excessive flooding from the
sudden water release from one or both dams if their holding
capacity was reached—such as occurred 2003 at Jinghong
station. Quang and Nguyen (2003) found that mean flow
changes could still be noted at Chiang Saen, but were
negligible further downstream in the Mekong delta at Chau
Doc and Tan Chau stations. Dry season flow increased by
over 60 % at Chiang Saen, according to their analyses,
which contradicts the findings of Lu and Siew (2006).
According to Quang and Nguyen (2003), wet season flow
increased by nearly 30 %, which they attribute to an
increase in rainfall. He and Chen (2002), as well as
Plinston and He (1999) and Chapman and He (1996),
expect a mean increase in discharge of 17 % after the
completion of Xiawan and Nuozhadu, as well as substantial
increases in dry season flow and reduced wet season dis-
charges of nearly 25 %, which—they state—might not be
felt downstream significantly, as flow discharges from Laos
tributaries are high (Lu et al. 2008). However, it should not
be ignored that the infilling periods of the reservoirs have
an immense—albeit temporary—impact. The infilling of
the relatively small Manwan reservoir (920 million m
) led
to dramatic water level decreases in the middle reaches in
1993 (Will 2010). The most recent study on the topic
published by Ra
¨nen et al. (2012) models dam impacts of
the Yunnan cascade in three scenarios (no dams, the first
three dams completed, six dams completed). Their mod-
elling results and predictions are well in line with several
previous studies and suggest a 20–22 % decrease in June–
November flows and a 90 % increase in December–May
flows (for Chiang Saen station, the closest gauging station
downstream of the cascade). Very different in magnitude
but similar in pattern, the MRC (2010) concludes a sig-
nificant increase in average discharge of 20–40 % in the
dry season and a decrease in flood season flow of about
5–15 %. Independent of source, all authors underline the
occurrence of a shift in flood pulse and a decrease in its
duration and amplitude, while dry season variability is
likely to increase.
There is great concern about these flood pulse changes,
especially for the highly productive Tonle Sap Lake eco-
system. The Tonle Sap is connected with the Mekong via
the 100 km long Tonle Sap River, which—during the drier
months—drains the lake into the river. During the rainy
season, the flow direction of the Tonle Sap River is
reversed and Mekong River water is pushed into Tonle Sap
Lake (Lamberts 2008). The lake therefore undergoes
extensive drying and flooding regimes, established as
diurnal and seasonal limnological changes, leading to a
fluctuation in water level from 0.5 up to 9 m. During
specific flood stages certain groups of the thousands of
species of plants and animals are favoured, and thus
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complex ecologic niches and habitats have developed.
Only slight changes in flood pulse characteristics may alter
the associated processes that determine the Tonle Sap’s
ecosystem productivity.
The above shows that numerous authors have come to
contrary conclusions—even if they worked with the same
numerical data. It cannot be ruled out that riparian publi-
cations are biassed indirectly by the geopolitical back-
ground of the respective society.
Currently, predominantly Vietnam raises a voice of
concern with respect to the Chinese hydropower plans
(Vaidyanathan 2011). At the same time, the former country
might feel pressured to maintain friendly relations with its
neighbour as their bilateral trade already exceeds 40 billion
USD annually. Nevertheless, during the 2nd Greater
Mekong Subregion (GMS) summit in Kunming in 2005,
the then Vietnamese Prime Minister Phan Van Khai
underlined the need to consider the legitimate interests of
Vietnam as a downstream country needing water for irri-
gation and stable flows to prevent saltwater intrusion into
the Mekong delta (Sokhem and Sunada 2008). Addition-
ally, the emerging industrial sector and the growing urban
population in the delta generate an increasing demand for
water (Will 2010; Kuenzer et al. 2011a). Despite ongoing
dam construction, Vietnam’s concern about water shortage
also has to be illuminated in the context of flow alteration
as an impact of climate change. After examining weather
and tree ring data, scientists concluded that, in the past
40 years, Yunnan has become warmer and drier—a trend
that started long before the dams were built (Stone 2010).
Adamson et al. (2009) also find a climate-change-induced
decrease in dry season discharge from the Tibetan plateau.
Spring and summer meltwater decreased and the glacial
extent on the plateau has shrunk by 6,600 km
from of a
total 110,000 km
. Even though the Yunnan component
contributes only between 16 and 18 % of the overall flow,
during the low flow months it contributes about 70 % of
the low flow component at Vientiane and 30–40 % at
Kratie. This shows that it is the dry season flows that are
the most vulnerable to artificial flow regulation or climate
change impacts (Adamson et al. 2009, Zhao et al. 2008).
While there might be a reason why China presently shares
the high-flow data with the downstream countries but not
the low-flow data (Campbell 2009), the country unex-
pectedly released dry-season flow data for the first time in
2010 during the ‘‘MRC International Conference on
Transboundary Resources Management in a Changing
World’’ to counteract suspicion that the extreme droughts
in southwest China, Laos, and northern Thailand were
dam-induced. It became obvious that there was a balance
of inflow and outflow at Manwan, Dachaoshan, and Jing-
hong dams, and that outflow from Xiaowan even exceeded
inflow. Also, the MRC released information on water levels
at Chiang Khong station in Thailand that were even higher
than expected (Mather and Brunner 2010).
Next to climate change, outlier years (Kuenzer et al.
2009) and dam-related impacts on flow, increasing water
extraction for irrigation in mid-stream areas such as the
lower Cambodian plains or the semi-arid Khorat plateau of
Thailand, aggravates flow alteration. Although the volume
of water diverted for irrigation is modest, it is important to
note that the diversion occurs in the dry season when the
relative effect is the greatest. Extreme irrigation and diking,
as introduced in the Mekong delta to ensure a third rice
crop, also lead to reduced groundwater recharge. The
sponge-like buffering capacity for water release in the dry
season decreases. Brunner (2011) asks and answers: ‘‘If
rice intensification is not necessary for domestic food
security and has serious environmental impacts, why is the
government so keen to grow even more rice? As with
infrastructure projects anywhere in the world, dyke con-
struction involves lucrative contracts and thousands of
well-paid jobs. The dyke companies and their friends in
local governments are vocal advocates for dyke construc-
tion.’’ (Brunner 2011: 1). One can imagine the parallels
with dam construction.
Assessing the impact of upstream Chinese dams
on downstream sedimentation
Another transboundary effect of dams is reduction in the
river’s suspended sediment load. With estimates that as
much as 40–50 % of the Mekong River’s sediment origi-
nates in China (MRC 2010), the reduction in sediment
concentration will likely have significant implications for
the ecosystem of downstream countries—both positive and
negative. According to a survey undertaken by Chinese
authorities, the combined trapping load of China’s Manwan
and Dachaoshan dams is ca. 70–80 million tons per year
(Walling 2009). Fu et al. (2006) analysed the sediment
concentration in the Lancang Jiang at Jinghong (about
400 km/314 km downstream of Manwan/Dachaoshan) and
concluded that completion of the two dams has caused a
significant and continuous reduction in annual sediment
concentration by 50 % since the late 1980s. This decrease
is particularly evident when comparing the results in sed-
iment load measured at Jinghong for the time prior to the
dam constructions (Walling 2009). The author showed that
between the mid-1960s and the end of the 1980s the annual
sediment load of the Mekong River increased steadily by
about 50 %, which could be attributed to the intensification
of land use in the upper Mekong Basin. For the future, it
can be expected that the completion of the much larger
Xiaowan dam, with a predicted trap efficiency of 90 %
(Guo et al. 2007) and location upstream of the Manwan
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dam, will reduce the sediment concentration to \10 % of
its natural value after passing the Dachaoshan dam
(Walling 2009). This sediment load will be reduced even
further after construction of the remaining dams of the
cascade (MRC 2010). This is also postulated by Wang
et al. (2011), who found that, usually, sediment load
increases due to soil disturbance occur only during the
construction period of dams, as observed from 1986 to
1992 during Manwan construction.
At the same time, the availability of sediment data
remains relatively sparse, and gap-free time series do not
exist. Furthermore, impacts of dams on sediment load must
be disentangled from impacts caused by land use change as
well as by hydrological regime and climate change. This is
a difficult endeavour (Wang et al. 2011), although Lauri
et al. (2012) assure that the impacts of reservoir operations
on hydrology are definitely larger than the effects of cli-
mate change.
In view of the observed and projected reduction of sedi-
ment flux, the question of the environmental and social
implications for the Mekong downstream countries arises.
For Laos and Cambodia, the decreasing sediment loads will
have significant advantages for their own hydropower
mainstream projects, since a reduced sediment load means a
decelerated loss of reservoir storage capacity and an exten-
ded economic life expectancy for their hydropower dams.
For the floodplains around Cambodia’s Tonle Sap and
the delta in Vietnam where the river deposits much of its
sediments, the pending reduction in sediment flux will have
largely negative implications for the ecosystem’s produc-
tivity, ecological biodiversity, and coastal stability—espe-
cially in the face of sea level rise (Biggs et al. 2009). In all
stretches of the river a reduced sediment load will lead to
impacts such as channel bed erosion, lateral channel
expansion, river incision, and a harmful reduction in the
over bank flooding that usually supplies nutritious sedi-
ments to the ecosystem (MRC 2010).
Are upstream–downstream interests really so clear-cut?
A paper by Methonen (2008a) is titled: ‘Do the Down-
stream Countries oppose the Upstream Dams?’ The author
comes to the conclusion that—despite all the public media
fuelling the local opposition of the downstream countries—
it is the national governments who agree to the plans. All
Mekong countries are involved in the regional power trade,
which will settle some region’s destiny as a net exporter or
importer of electricity (Methonen 2008a).
Thailand is an especially large energy market in the
Mekong region, with annual energy consumption expected
to triple by 2020. Currently, 9 % of the country’s electricity
is based on hydropower, which will be increased
considerably via national funds flowing into hydropower
projects in neighbouring Myanmar and Laos (Matthews
2012). From the very beginning of China’s hydropower
project planning, Thailand has signalled interest in elec-
tricity imports from the upstream dams. A memorandum of
understanding (MoU) signed by Thailand and China spec-
ifies Thailand’s purchase of up to 3,000 MW generated by
Chinese dams. Furthermore, Thailand funds hydropower
projects not only in China (the Thai company MDX Power
is developing the Jinghong project in Yunnan), but also in
Myanmar (Salween River) and Laos, where the Thai power
company EGAT is involved in the Nam Theun 2 project
financed by the Agence Franc¸aise de De
´veloppement, the
Nordic Investment Bank, the ADB, and the WB’s Interna-
tional Development Agency. In return, Laos earns a lot of
foreign exchange selling the electricity back to Thailand,
and 2,000 MW are also sold to the Vietnamese government
(Backer 2006; Schmeier 2010).
Also Vietnam—relying up to 40 % on hydropower—
imports electricity largely from China, and increased these
imports significantly in 2006 to avoid shortages during the
dry season (Methonen 2008a). Vietnam’s purchase of
Chinese electricity is possible only through the GMS power
grid. ‘‘However, in doing so, Vietnam indirectly supports
projects it suffers from the most.’’ (Schmeier 2010: 38).
Already in October 2004, Vietnam’s prime minister pre-
sented a national strategy (Decision 677/2004/QD-TTG) to
develop the electric energy sector, putting major emphasis
on hydropower (increasing hydropower capacity from
39 % in 2006 to 62 % in 2020). The focus was especially
on Vietnam’s central highlands (at that time 17 planned
projects), where numerous Mekong tributaries originate.
However, just recently the National Assembly has imposed
a moratorium on all dam building after recent floods
exposed design flaws in the first completed dams. On 21
July 2012, current Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Tan
Duy signed a decision on power development by 2020,
seeking to boost alternative energy development but
reducing hydropower dependence (23 % envisaged).
Laos has a hydropower potential exceeding 23,000 MW
and 49 dams are currently already installed (690 MW).
Hydropower projects are developed speedily and Laos is—
just like Yunnan province in China—a net exporter of
electricity. The country has exported electricity to Thailand
since the 1970s, and in the year 2000 80 % of its electricity
was generated by hydropower. Cambodia also has a sub-
stantial hydropower potential of 8,000 MW, which remains
untapped so far as the country is one of the lesser devel-
oped in the GMS. Myanmar’s large potential exceeding
100,000 MW also remains largely untapped. However, in
2002 a Department of Hydroelectric Power was established
within the Ministry of Energy and 268 potential dam sites
have been identified (Schmeier 2010).
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Partially realised cross border trade (see Fig. 5) already
shows the contradictory nature of upstream–downstream
interests. While numerous NGOs, national newspapers and
new media condemn upstream activities as the source of
downstream problems (see Bangkok Post, Vietnam Today,
etc.), large power trade deals have been signed in the
background. They enable Vietnam to import electricity
from Yunnan province, China, Laos, and Cambodia; enable
Thailand to import electricity from Yunnan province,
China, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia; enable Laos to
import electricity from China; and enable Cambodia to
import from Laos and Thailand. Vietnam and Thailand are
the two largest importers, profiting strongly from the
upstream countries’ exports. At the same time, especially
Vietnam exploits its own hydropower potential to the
fullest, independent of downstream (e.g. Mekong delta)
concerns. According to International Union for Conserva-
tion of Nature’s (IUCN) programme coordinator Jake
Brunner: ‘‘It’s too late. The binge is over. Private sector
participation in dam construction far outstripped the gov-
ernment’s capacity to plan or regulate it. Vietnam is now
one of the world’s most ‘dammed’ countries in terms of the
proportion of its hydropower potential that has been
exploited’’ (Minh 2011).
Vietnam and Laos, for example, build dams jointly in
Laos under the ‘Viet-Lao Electricity Development and
Investment Joint Stock Company’. ‘‘China alone is not the
only one to blame for the Upper Mekong (and Salween)
developments.’’ The countries ‘‘construction plans are
clearly influenced by the involvement of other Mekong
nations’’ and Thailand particularly plays a significant role in
increasing the profitability of the upper Mekong schemes
because of large scale demands for electricity (Methonen
2008a: 169). The fact that China is the biggest trade partner,
often the largest investor, and partially also donor of loans to
the downstream countries might mute some of the down-
stream government officials. The riparians engage in diffi-
cult dependencies. Already Sovacool (2009) stated that
large-scale energy infrastructure networks can degrade
rather than enhance energy security—especially when
international conflict arises. However, this staying quiet for
its own projects shows that even for the downstream coun-
tries economic development and projects increasing GDP
are currently more important than environmental protection
or the vulnerability of the rural poor. ‘‘There are many
parties opposing the dam projects and these parties even
include individual government officials. However, all the
arrangements made for the regional energy trade show that
Table 3 Electricity supply
requirements in the GMS
countries in 2000 and 2020
Source: ADB (2003)
requirements in
2000 (GWh)
requirements in
2020 (GWh)
Per capita
requirements in
2000 (kWh)
Per capita
requirements in
2020 (kWh)
Thailand 96,781 328,429 6.3 1,576 5,349
Laos 865 4,438 8.5 160 822
Cambodia 586 5,720 12.1 52 511
Vietnam 26,722 169,428 9.7 335 2,123
Myanmar 4,400 16,400 6.8 96 360
Yunnan 31,635 91,689 5.5 755 2,188
Fig. 4 People’s Republic of
China (PRC) trade with Mekong
riparians (except Thailand), in
billion USD. Source: Will
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the myth of the downstream countries’ opposition towards
China’s upper Mekong dams is not true when talking about
the national governments. Nevertheless, a reader not
familiar with all these aspects gets a very different picture
when trying to follow the situation through media and other
sources.’’ (Methonen 2008a: 170) Table 3; Fig. 4.
Overall, the Mekong acts as a ‘‘battery’’, generating
electricity to be exported to wealthier users in places like
Thailand, exacerbating wealth asymmetries and often
hurting marginalised communities (Greacen and Greacen
2004). Each country (Fig. 5) tries to capitalise on its river
location by exploiting the river’s resources as much as
possible for its own interests and needs, regardless of the
consequences pending further downstream or the overall
health of the hydraulic system. Mather and Brunner (2010)
very correctly note: ‘‘So while the benefits of power sales
would accrue primarily to governments, state owned
enterprises, investors, construction companies, and hydro-
power operators, with some presumed trickle-down effects,
the costs would be overwhelmingly borne by millions of
rural poor’’ (Mather and Brunner 2010: 3). Simpson (2007)
expresses what can be read between the lines of many
articles: that the social and environmental costs of Mekong
hydro development will outweigh its benefits by far.
Players fostering the hydropower debate: assessment
of mandates and achievements
Numerous players shape and influence the hydropower
debate, such as large international and national banks (e.g.
WB, ADB, China Exim Bank, Japan Bank for International
Cooperation), political networks (e.g. ASEAN), foreign aid
organisations (e.g. USAID, AusAID, GIZ, DANIDA), large
private hydropower companies (e.g. Sinohydro Corporation,
Dongfeng Electric Corporation, Karnchang), national gov-
ernments via state agencies (the six riparian governments, plus
substantial influence by donor countries), global (UN) and
supra-regional bodies (e.g. MRC, GMS), INGOS (e.g. WWF,
IUCN, Oxfam, International Rivers), national NGOs (e.g.
Green Watershed, 3S River Protection Network, Assembly
for the Poor), foundations (e.g. Ford, Rockefeller), individual
consultants, universities and research institutes (located
mainly in the riparian and donor countries), and last but not
least, local communities,all of which cannot be elaborated on.
An extensive categorisation and overview of players in
the Mekong can be found in Dore et al. (2012). The latter
authors present a framework for the analysis of trans-
boundary water governance complexes, based on the pillars
of context, drivers, arenas, tools, decisions, and impacts.
At this point we focus on and compare two suprare-
gional bodies impacting the hydropower debate: the
Mekong River Commission and the GMS Initiative.
The Mekong River Commission
The first Mekong Committee was established in 1957 to
attempt to solve Mekong regional water controversies.
Already at that time a hydropower capacity of 23,300 MW
and seven huge dams had been planned (Varis et al. 2008).
However, the work of this Committee was strongly hin-
dered by national and international wars from the 1960s
until the mid-1990s. Cambodia was absent from the com-
mittee from 1974 until 1995. Furthermore, China was not
part of the committee. Indeed, only from 1995 onwards did
the regional political situation allow political and economic
integration in Southeast Asia (Varis et al. 2008). Vietnam,
Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand signed the Mekong agree-
ment on new cooperation modalities in the LMB, which
re-established the Mekong Committee, now newly named
Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC aims at
sustainable management and development of the basin’s
water resources for the countries’ mutual benefit. The main
task of the MRC is the development of Mekong Basin
Development Plans. The MRC member countries are
Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, while China and
Myanmar are considered dialogue partners. It is problem-
atic that the MRC is not fully funded by the member
countries, but that donor funding remains dominant
(Backer 2006). The fact that basin country ministries are
unwilling to share their power (and resources) with the
MRC poses challenges for the achievement of measurable
impacts and the organisation’s general acceptance.
According to Ha (2011), who has investigated the role
of the MRC since its re-founding in 1995, the MRC ‘‘has
done a poor job in its fundamental tasks of water man-
agement and sustainable development and has struggled to
maintain dialogue with all parties.’’ (Ha 2011: 126). The
MRC’s effectiveness was hampered ‘‘because the 1995
agreement set out procedures that were not rules-based and
lacked real enforcement mechanisms. In essence, the MRC
was unable to influence the national policies of its member
countries’’ (Ha 2011: 130). Although the MRC has set up a
large knowledge base including micro- and macro-level
data, the commission could not utilise this knowledge base
successfully to foster good water governance and sustain-
able development (Backer 2006; Sneddon and Fox 2007).
According to Ha (2011) it was mainly the MRC leadership
personalities who impacted the understanding of sustain-
able development and the valuation and attention given to
environmental concerns. Under the 1st year’s leadership of
Japanese former engineer Yanasabu Matoba, the MRC
focussed mainly on centralised infrastructure support.
From 2000 until 2004 under the lead of Joern Christensen,
the MRC steered towards more extensive basin-wide con-
sideration emphasising ecological conservation. During the
implementation of the basin development plan of 1999
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Fig. 5 Sketch of the Mekong subregional power grid (adapted and extended based on IRN 2006 and MRC 2010)
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(already generated under the influence of Christensen)
great attention was paid to the ecological ramifications of
the projects (Ha 2011). A shift occurred again under the
following leadership of Oliver Cogels—MRC’s third
CEO—who focussed on intensive cooperation with the WB
and the ADB, understanding sustainable development as
‘concrete projects in hydropower, navigation, fisheries,
irrigated agriculture, environmental management, water-
shed management, etc.’ (Ha 2011: 129). Technologic (and
technocratic) project implementation was the characteristic
of this period. From 2008 on, the fourth CEO, Jeremy Bird
(former head of the World Commission on Dams), shifted
the position of the MRC towards a social and environ-
mentally sound impact assessment of project implementa-
tion. Special attention was given to the definition of
acceptable practices for mainstream hydropower develop-
ment. Bird’s term ended early 2011 and the MRC has been
under new Swedish leadership by Hans Guttman since
November 2011, even though it was originally planned for
a riparian national to become CEO.
Campbell (2009), who has worked for the MRC for
several years, also stresses that the current attempts of the
MRC to be both a development agency and a basin man-
agement agency are incompatible. ‘‘A consequence has
been that the MRC has swung from one role to the other,
identifying itself as a basin management organisation or as
a development agency’’ depending on the chief executive
officers (Campbell 2009: 413). Until this ambiguity in
mandate is resolved the MRC will not be able to succeed.
At the same time it is widely accepted that the MRC is the
only organisation that can fulfil the river basin management
role. However, it cannot fulfil the role of a river basin
management organisation and a development agency at the
same time and needs to clarify its role (Sneddon and Fox
2007; Keskinen et al. 2008). Also according to Mather and
Brunner (2010), the MRC has currently reached a crucial
moment. With respect to an official agreement on a 10-year
Xayaburi dam delay, partially opposed by the Laotian
government, and via ongoing construction activities at the
dam site, the question is now whether the MRC can really
facilitate the process of finding a pathway of action con-
flicting with national short-term interests. ‘‘If not, then the
hundreds of millions of dollars of donor funding since 1995
will arguably have been in vain’’ (Mather and Brunner
2010: 3).
The greater Mekong subregion initiative
Other supranational players in the region exist next to the
MRC: namely the WB and the ADB. The ADB fosters a
programme called the ‘Greater Mekong Subregion Initia-
tive’ (GMS), which includes the four member countries of
the MRC as well as China and Myanmar. The GMS, which
was initiated jointly with UN-ESCAP in 1992, aims at the
livelihood improvement of over 250 million Mekong Basin
inhabitants and the strengthening of regional and subre-
gional economic cooperation, mainly via investment in the
development of infrastructure (Lang 2005; Nikula 2008).
The programme is backed up by the Association of
Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN, which in 2002 agreed
jointly with China to create the world’s biggest free trade
zone. Investment and development of the Mekong river
basin are key priorities for cooperation in the region. The
GMS unifies multiple subregional priority projects from the
field of transport, energy, environment, human resource
development, trade and investment, tourism, and telecom-
munication under its framework (Krongkaew 2004). The
Mekong Power Grid is one of the flagships of this pro-
gramme (IRN 2006). The very strong engagement of China
with the GMS and ASEAN is spurred by huge financial
incentives. However, it is currently limited to ‘‘socio-
economic development rather than setting strict institutions
to serve a broader goal of international cooperation for the
sustainable development of the Mekong Basin’’ (Sokhem
and Sunada 2008: 144). Within ASEAN, the ASEAN
Mekong Basin Development Cooperation Initiative was
established in 1996 with the goal of economically sound
sustainable development of the region. In the year 2011
alone, several hundred ASEAN workshops and events took
place (see, among them technical
and subregional working group meetings on transboundary
pollution in the Mekong Basin.
While ASEAN and the GMS are perceived as options
for business and trade expansion and resulting economic
gains, the MRC is perceived as an organisation developing
guidelines for sustainable development. These include
water quality and quantity guidelines without the backup of
national government’s acceptance and thus without the
backup of new laws and law enforcement (Sokhem and
Sunada 2008). Lang (2005) even states: ‘‘While the MRC
has been seen as having a formal and clumsy bureaucratic
style, the GMS operates as an informal sub-regional
cooperative framework’’ (Lang 2005:6). The differences
between MRC and GMS are also obvious when taking a
closer look at the level of their investments. Between 2003
and 2008, the MRC spent 90.3 million USD (15 million
USD per year) on their work. During the same 6 years the
GMS spent half a billion USD. While national govern-
ments contributed only 7.5 % of the funds of the MRC,
they contributed 33 % to GMS investments (Will 2010).
However, many authors, such as Gainsborough (2009),
also argue that GMS-based ‘‘so called ‘cooperation’ has led
to new forms of regulation and restriction, particularly,
it would appear, targeted at the poor and marginal’’
(Gainsborough 2009: 6). Matthews (2012) impressively
depicted the political ecology of winners and losers in Laos
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hydropower development. Profits from Mekong hydro-
power materialise via construction contracts, electricity
sales, timber profits, and the export of expertise and tech-
nology, to name only a few of the many sources. Factors
enabling unbalanced profiting, such as tight state control of
media, INGOS and NGOs, the lack of regulating or law
enforcement capacity in the riparian countries, the easy
availability of capital, a focus on short-term gains, and the
praise of hydropower as green and clean energy all lead to
water grabbing opportunities in the Mekong riparian
countries. Powerful actors, from national government
agencies to private companies to powerful influential elites,
are usually the winners of hydropower development, while
the environment and especially rural people, depending on
their natural livelihoods, are the vulnerable losers. This is
the case independent of riparian nation. So, in contrast to
common public perception, there is no such thing as
upstream winner countries and downstream loser countries,
as numerous downstream institutions profit from the
expansion of the sector. It boils down to a question of rich
and poor, of influential, and not influential.
To counterbalance these prevailing inequalities, major
efforts must be undertaken to increase transparency and
participation. The involvement of local communities in
impact assessment studies, development of mechanisms to
foster cross-sector, trans-disciplinary dialogue throughout
the different decision-making levels, harmonisation of
assessment methods, and improved communication of
Mekong-related information in all riparian languages are
only some of the urgently needed steps that could focus the
hydropower debate on sustainability and on the interests of
the majority of the Mekong riparian population.
Examining hydropower development within the Mekong
Basin reveals an obvious conflict interest between the
needs of upstream and downstream countries, and espe-
cially between the priorities of Mekong upper class deci-
sion makers directly or indirectly profiting from the dams
and the majority of the rural poor, whose livelihood they
put at risk.
Main stem and tributary hydropower dams impact flood
pulse timing variability, which can have grave effects on
ecologic niches, ecosystems and biodiversity. They lead to
a long-term decrease in downstream sediment load, which
reduces the nutritious load to plains, wetlands and agri-
cultural areas. Sediment loss is expected to aggravate
coastal erosion and saltwater intrusion in the Mekong
delta—a region already threatened by sea level rise.
Endangered natural environments are, however, not only
the Mekong delta, but also the Tonle Sap and southern
Cambodian floodplains. These regions host over one-third
of the Mekong Basin population, which depends heavily on
fish catch as a source of daily protein. Migrating fish will,
however, be hindered on their pathway by hundreds of
metres of high concrete walls. Fish ladders on such con-
structions have proven to be mostly inadequate in design,
and also cannot prevent migratory fish from losing their
sense of orientation when they end up in a slow flowing
large reservoir instead of a stream. At the dam sites
themselves, forced relocation of rural populations often
leads to a decrease in resilience and impoverishment. All
the above underline the complexities of the water-food-
energy nexus in the Mekong region. Many authors argue
that the environmental and social costs of cascading the
Mekong and its tributaries probably outweigh the benefits
of energy generation, improved navigability, and associ-
ated economic development.
In public media and the public debate, the large-scale
transboundary impact of hydropower development is a
politically charged topic. First and foremost, the main stem
cascade of China is brought up when explanations are
needed for any abnormal downstream situations. However,
many authors addressing the topic of dam impact in the
Mekong have come to contradictory results and conclu-
sions. Many studies and assessment reports are biased and
guided by the complex interests of their respective insti-
tutions. Flow and sediment related data often lack temporal
or spatial coherence, and it is difficult to derive clear
quantitative statements, although the general trends seem
clear. Additional impacts on the variability of Mekong
water flows, such as increasing water consumption for
urban and rural areas, land use change, and the influence of
climate variations, must be considered. At the same time,
planned mainstream dams as well as operational and
planned tributary dams in the lower Mekong Basin need to
move more to centre stage. The Xayaburi case is a first
good example, and more should follow. Despite the strong
opposition of local populations to the dams of upstream
riparian neighbours it is often forgotten that their own
country’s government, companies and other interest groups
are closely engaged in building and operating dams on their
own territory—or are at least involved in electricity
transfer schemes.
Therefore, the common apprehension that downstream
countries suffer unilaterally from the negative impacts of
hydropower development in upstream countries seems only
partly justified. The interests of upstream and downstream
countries are not clear-cut because of the economic inter-
action of all Mekong riparians. All Mekong countries are
involved in the regional power trade triggered by the GMS
initiative. Thailand and Vietnam are the main net importers
of electricity from upstream countries; Yunnan Province
and Laos are the main net-exporters of electricity.
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Cambodia and Myanmar have large potential hydropower
energy use, and especially Cambodia plans to increase
hydropower development to benefit from electricity
exports. Thailand and Vietnam support hydropower
development in their neighbouring countries by providing
national funds for investment in hydropower projects. In
addition, especially Vietnam exploits its own hydropower
potential without considering the impact on the Mekong
delta further downstream. Many media, NGOs and INGOS
emphasise the negative impacts of upstream dams, while at
the same time national governments are signing large
power trade deals in the background. Currently, each
country tries to capitalise on its river location, regardless of
the pending consequences for the overall health of the
hydraulic system.
The arena of players influencing the hydropower debate
in the Mekong is extensive. It ranges from large interna-
tional and national banks to riparian and non-riparian gov-
ernments, private corporations, companies, supraregional
bodies and networks to INGOs, NGOs, foundations, sci-
entific institutions, media and even to individual power-elite
decision makers and lobbyists, all with their own interests.
Whereas the future of Mekong hydropower seems to be
shaped mainly by economic cooperation under the Greater
Mekong Subregion Initiative, the role of the Mekong River
Commission remains unclarified. If its members do not
commit themselves to empowering this organisation to plan
and implement river basin management, its influence via the
development of recommendations, norms, and standards
will be meagre. Much stronger involvement of local com-
munities and local studies in impact assessments, the
development of mechanisms to foster true cross-sector,
trans-disciplinary dialogue that can percolate through dif-
ferent hierarchical levels of decision making, the harmo-
nisation of assessment methods and data analyses, and an
improved communication of Mekong related information in
all riparian languages are only some of the challenges
urgently needing attention.
Acknowledgments The authors would like to thank Jake Brunner,
Ed Grumbine, Fabrice Renaud, and Heiko Apel for their valuable
comments on the manuscript. Further thanks go to two anonymous
reviewers. The research undertaken for this paper was funded by the
German Ministry of Education and Research, BMBF. However, the
funding source had no impact on the content of this study. This paper
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Ziv G, Barand E, Nam S, Rodriguez-Iturbe I, Levin SA (2012)
Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in
the Mekong river basin. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 109:5609–5614
Sustain Sci
Author's personal copy
... The Mekong river, one of the largest rivers in the world which flows over a length of around 4909 km and drains a total of 795,000 km 2 land area in Southeast Asia, is home to more than 72 million people and approximately 500 species (Kuenzer et al., 2012;Mekong River Commission, 2018a;Tran et al., 2021;Winemiller et al., 2016). Together with other rivers, Mekong has contributed to defining the cultures, religions, and lifestyles for people in Southeast Asia (Hirsch et al., 2006;Molle et al., 2009;Hui et al., 2022;Loc et al., 2018;Osborne, 2009). ...
... The high dependence on water for agriculture has led to water allocation being the fundamental collective problem causing regional conflicts (Loc et al., 2021a, b;Hui et al., 2022;Schmeier, 2013;Tran et al., 2021). Current economic and population growth in the region coupled with the high price of fossil fuels has led to a high demand for hydropower, which is currently promoted as one of the most important means to improve national economies (Hirsch, 2016;Kuenzer et al., 2012;Molle et al., 2009). Approximately 38% of hydropower projects are executing in different stages in Southeast Asia (Williams, 2020). ...
... Nevertheless, several authors have claimed that the supposed connection between dam building and livelihood improvement has been based on an insufficient number of examples; the mainstream dams contribute little to nothing; even the social and environmental impacts exceed the economic benefits (Costanza et al., 2011;Hirsch, 2016;Molle et al., 2009). Cumulative effects of all dams, if built, would alter the natural flow patterns, reduce sediment load, and disrupt fish migration and other ecosystem services, thus causing negative consequences on millions of locals (Grumbine et al., 2012;Kuenzer et al., 2012;Schmeier, 2013). The potential severity of these effects could reduce the economic growth and social stability of the downstream countries, consequently threatening the region's peace and security (Lynch, 2016). ...
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Despite the importance of transboundary water management, cooperation mechanisms are limited, especially in the case of Mekong River basin where environmental and social aspects are threatened by recent anthropogenic pressures like hydropower development. Existing transboundary mechanism such as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is challenged to facilitate the cooperation between riparian states. An epistemic community (EC) is considered to effectively influence international governance and is studied as part of transboundary river regimes. The existence of an MRC EC is part of that regime but understanding about its characteristics is yet limited. This research aims to fill in the gap by unraveling the main features of the EC in relation to hydropower development. We analyze shared causal beliefs and policy goals that developed in the EC framework of Haas applying literature review and semi-structured interviews of experts. Results show that the community experts share causal beliefs and policy goals only to a limited extent while disagreeing on many aspects. It resembles a “disciplined” or “professional” group rather than an EC. This suggests that the knowledge factor has not gained proper influence and attention in the region, resulting in incoherent policy advice leading to policymakers developing policies based on incomplete and fragmented knowledge. The role of the MRC in the decision-making process could become more relevant if it would facilitate the development of an EC. Bringing key stakeholders including policymakers and experts into a platform where policy goals and causal beliefs are facilitated to reach possible consensus is recommended. Narrowing the science-policy gap while acknowledging differences in interests and policy objectives is crucial to reach a sustainable transboundary management of the Mekong River given its rapid development, especially on hydropower.
... Studies investigating the environmental and social impacts of hydropower projects have mainly focused on the hydropower dams of the upper and lower Mekong River Basin (MRB) and Yangtze River Basin (Three Gorges Dam, TGD). The Mekong is the world's ninth largest river, flowing for over 4,900 km from its source on the Qinghai Tibet Plateau (QTP) at a 5,200 m elevation to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam (Kuenzer et al., 2013). Large-scale dams on the MRB will inevitably lead to environmental and social costs, rendering these ambitious hydropower plans highly controversial and politically charged (Barrington et al., 2012). ...
... The qualitative socioeconomic impacts of hydropower projects mainly include indigenous peoples' interests, gender issues, religious beliefs, and economic distortion. The environmental impacts of hydropower projects are mainly related to biodiversity loss (Kuenzer et al., 2013). The socioeconomic impacts of infrastructure projects mainly involve disruption of the social structure and restructuring of the urban spatial structure. ...
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To address the social and environmental impacts of China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and just energy transition, this research provides a conceptual framework to assess social and environmental impacts by selecting socioeconomic and environmental indicators through a literature review. The framework highlights that assessment indicators should include quantitative and qualitative dimensions. We also discussed the similarities and differences in foreign aid between developed countries and China's BRI, the relationship between the BRI, just energy transition and globalization, sustainable development goals (SDGs), and social-environmental resilience. This conceptual assessment framework and discussion provides stakeholders with an approach to contribute to mitigating the socio and environmental impacts of project development.
... Second, our study focuses on the pristine condition of the river system, that is, prior to the riverine damming and sand mining. We therefore only use data before 1990 given the fact that human activities have largely intensified since the 1990s, which has significantly altered the sediment load (Bravard et al., 2013;Hackney et al., 2020;Kuenzer et al., 2013;Liu et al., 2013;Walling, 2008;Zhai et al., 2016). Given these considerations, we decide to use the HYMOS data set to calibrate and validate our physical model. ...
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The Mekong Delta, home to 20 million people, is experiencing significant land loss due to rising sea levels, accelerating land subsidence, and declining sediment supply. Robust estimates of the sediment flux delivered to Mekong Delta (SFMD) and the relative contribution of sediment load (RCSL) from individual subbasins are key to designing future adaptation strategies, such as strategic dam planning, sand mining, and delta groundwater management. However, existing estimates of SFMD and RCSL are largely deterministic without uncertainty quantification or using a uniform sampling to represent uncertainty. They also remain questionable due to data inconsistency and methodological biases caused by overlooked physical processes. Here, we develop a hybrid physics‐based data‐driven modeling framework to constrain the probability distribution of SFMD and RCSL and explore how they change under plausible climate change and land‐use change scenarios, leveraging recent advances in Bayesian inference (i.e., reasoning by refutation). We find that pure yield‐based approaches, which typically ignore sediment retention, can lead to higher estimates of RCSL from upstream regions compared with the physics‐based approach. Our best estimate of historical (1962–2005) SFMD combining multiple lines of evidence shows a median of 106 Mt/yr with a 5%–95% range of 66–160 Mt/yr. Over the analyzed range of land‐use and climate change scenarios, future changes in SFMD seem to be more sensitive to the latter, especially changes in wet‐season precipitation. Our estimate of RCSL from the Upper Mekong River Basin is likely (>66% probability) in the range of 0.25–0.39 with a mean of 0.34 in all plausible scenarios.
... The Mekong River with its natural regulation is formed by the dry and rainy seasons in Vietnam and there are strong flood effects in the rainy season [20]. Water flow in the study area is affected by hydrological variation due to upstream hydropower [21], the floodplains in Cambodia [22], and the tide. Sediment filling/scouring and eddy currents are the main phenomena on the River. ...
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River morphological change is the complex evolution of riverbed states, which can lead to serious riverbank failures, and is a worldwide concern. However, revealing the cause of the evolution, in particular, the potential morphological scouring by eddy currents, is difficult. Accordingly, we propose a comprehensive combination of 2D and 3D simulations to reveal the eddy currents. We selected the Vam Nao, part of the Mekong River, with semi-tidal effects and confluence flows as the case study. We created two unstructured 40 m × 40 m triangular meshes using inverse distance interpolation. This study used the Saint–Venant equations (TELEMAC2D) and Navier–Stokes equations (TELEMAC3D) to reveal the eddy currents for 2009, 2017, and 2018. TELEMAC2D (the simplified form of TELEMAC3D) was assessed for 15 days, 3 months, and 1 year, which met a satisfactory level. The eddy currents’ appearance was verified by local knowledge. We found recirculating currents near the riverbank to the East (right at the riverbank failures), whose velocity was approximately half and 1/3–1/4 of the mainstream flow velocity in the dry and flood seasons, respectively. Our study approach performed well in revealing the eddy currents, which can aid in assessing potential riverbank failures and can be applicable to similar contexts.
... As each country in the Mekong region tries to maximise benefits due to its location in the region, with less regard to the overall health of the river system, the upstream-downstream relations seem less defined (Kuenzer et al., 2013). Even though it is more common to perceive that downstream countries are suffering mainly from the negative impacts of dams in upstream countries, the GMS region manifests very complex relations through economic interactions among the GMS countries, which blur the line between upstream and downstream nations. ...
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This study is using household- and village-level data as well as personal interviews with village representatives in Mekong-near villages in Laos and Thailand. Results largely confirm what has been reported in various literatures on the development of the Mekong region and its downsides. The paper has three simple messages: (1) the rural people living in Mekong villages are the ones paying for the environmental costs of hydropower development while the benefits occur elsewhere in the economy, (2) the loss in natural resources is likely to exceed the gains in agricultural productivity by far, and (3) COVID-19 has exposed the weakness of rural economies in the Mekong Region and makes it harder to cope with other ongoing changes such as climate change. It is recommended that governments pay more attention to rural development with digitalisation and sustainable intensification in agriculture as core elements.
... As each country in the Mekong region tries to maximise benefits due to its location in the region, with less regard to the overall health of the river system, the upstream-downstream relations seem less defined (Kuenzer et al., 2013). Even though it is more common to perceive that downstream countries are suffering mainly from the negative impacts of dams in upstream countries, the GMS region manifests very complex relations through economic interactions among the GMS countries, which blur the line between upstream and downstream nations. ...
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We adopted a spectral clustering algorithm to divide the document co-citation network of 1,776 papers in the field of Lancang-Mekong water, and 14 clusters were identified. For each cluster, the top-cited references construct the knowledge base, and the most-coverage cities are taken as the research frontier. Three indicators, namely betweenness centrality, citation burstness strength, and Sigma, were used to identify the research outputs with pioneering and transformative value. The changes in the research topics and hotspots are closely related to the planning, construction, and operation progress of hydropower engineering, that affected by the gaming results of all parties. The 2009–2010 is an important time boundary, with the original research hotspots including the impact of upstream reservoirs on the hydrological regime and sediment (Clu#3) and arsenic contamination of groundwater in the Lower Mekong (Clu#4) that obtained periodical achievements and reached consensus to some extent around 2008, and the new research boom turns to the Tonle Sap Lake and flood pulse (Clu#2) in short-term characterized literatures with the highest burstness strength mainly concentrated around 2012.
The boom in water infrastructure in the Mekong Basin has raised concerns over the annual supply of water and sediment among its riparian communities. By consolidating various datasets, continuous series of sediment load data were estimated for several stations located within the Lower Mekong Basin. At Chiang Saen in Thailand, the nearest station to the Chinese dams, the average sediment load was 79 ± 32 Mt./yr during the pre-dam period of 1965–1991. However, from 2010 to 2019 – during which a series of mega-dams were built in China – the sediment load decreased drastically by 84 % to only 12.5 ± 4.6 Mt./yr. This phenomenon of reduced annual sediment load during the mega-dam era (2010–2019) as compared to during the pre-dam era (1965–1991) can be observed at stations downstream from Luang Prabang (−53 %) to Nong Khai (−62 %) to Khong Chiam (−33 %). One of the drivers of this sediment load crisis is the rapid development of upstream dams. Especially after 2003, Chinese dams have reduced sediment supply to the downstream Mekong Basin severely. Concurrently, there was an increase in sediment contribution from the stretch of the Mekong River from Chiang Saen to Khong Chiam. A positive outcome of this increased sediment contribution was its buffering effect against the reduction in sediment load from the Chinese part of the Mekong Basin. Although sediment load at Kratie – the gateway station before the alluvial stretch comprising the Cambodian floodplains and Vietnam Mekong Delta – decreased from 78 ± 22 Mt./yr (1995–2009) to only 60 ± 21 Mt./yr (2010–2019), the reduction would have been higher without the increased sediment from the Chiang Saen – Khong Chiam stretch. However, with upcoming planned dams in Laos and Cambodia, this buffering effect is likely to be temporary, implying that the sediment load crisis as already experienced by the downstream communities can only become more severe.
Although ecosystem restoration is based on the concepts, approaches, and applied aspects of restoration ecology, science and practice of restoration must go far beyond that in a multidimensional perspective. This is shown by deepening certain topics related to ecosystem and landscape restoration. Hereby, terra preta as an ancient soil management, multipurpose plant species, and Cultural Keystone Species are introduced. Since the restoration and revitalization of cultural landscapes encompasses also socio-economic aspects and approaches, the village as an engine for cultural landscape maintenance and rural development, traditional cultural landscapes as tourist destinations, health care on the countryside, rural-urban partnerships, infrastructure and energy in rural areas, and the design of new cultural landscapes based on land-use traditions are discussed. Also, Higher Education should contribute to ecosystem and landscape restoration by preparing a new generation of well-skilled actors, stakeholders, and scholars who can apply their knowledge in an interdisciplinary and intercultural environment.KeywordsCultural keystone speciesInfrastructureMultipurpose speciesRenewable energyRural-urban partnershipsTerra pretaVillage
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The transboundary Mekong River is facing two on-going changes that are estimated to significantly impact its hydrology and the characteristics of its exceptional flood pulse. The rapid economic development of the riparian countries has led to massive plans for hydropower construction, and the projected climate change is expected to alter the monsoon patterns and increase temperature in the basin. The aim of this study is to assess the cumulative impact of these factors on the hydrology of the Mekong within next 20–30 yr. We downscaled output of five General Circulation Models (GCMs) that were found to perform well in the Mekong region. For the simulation of reservoir operation, we used an optimisation approach to estimate the operation of multiple reservoirs, including both existing and planned hydropower reservoirs. For hydrological assessment, we used a distributed hydrological model, VMod, with a grid resolution of 5 km × 5 km. In terms of climate change's impact to hydrology, we found a high variation in the discharge results depending on which of the GCMs is used as input. The simulated change in discharge at Kratie (Cambodia) between the baseline (1982–1992) and projected time period (2032–2042) ranges from −11% to +15% for the wet season and −10% to +13% for the dry season. Our analysis also shows that the changes in discharge due to planned reservoir operations are clearly larger than those simulated due to climate change: 25–160% higher dry season flows and 5–24% lower flood peaks in Kratie. The projected cumulative impacts follow rather closely the reservoir operation impacts, with an envelope around them induced by the different GCMs. Our results thus indicate that within the coming 20–30 yr, the operation of planned hydropower reservoirs is likely to have a larger impact on the Mekong hydrograph than the impacts of climate change, particularly during the dry season. On the other hand, climate change will increase the uncertainty of the estimated hydropower impacts. Consequently, both dam planners and dam operators should pay better attention to the cumulative impacts of climate change and reservoir operation to the aquatic ecosystems, including the multibillion-dollar Mekong fisheries.
The Mekong Delta in Vietnam (also known as the Cuu Long or “nine dragons”) covers an area of 39,000 km2 and is home to more than 17 million inhabitants. The region is familiarly known as the “rice bowl” of the country. Yet, although it is the principal rice-producing region in Vietnam, agricultural outputs go beyond rice production alone as the delta is also a main producer of fruits and vegetables as well as of aquaculture products. Economically, the delta is therefore very important for the country as a whole, however the region remains one of the poorest when compared to other regions in Vietnam. Despite the rapid economic growth of Vietnam in recent years and important improvements in agricultural systems in the region, many farmers in the delta have to deal with low profitability and high economic and environmental risks forcing them into insecure livelihoods. Key to the further development of the delta and to addressing part of the development barriers in the region is the management of the principal natural resource in the region: water. As for any delta, water plays a crucial role in shaping social-ecological systems in the Mekong Delta particularly for communities who depend on delta water resources directly for their livelihoods and daily subsistence. Water can also be directly and indirectly a threat to these livelihoods as, for example, large portions of the delta are flooded annually and although people have adapted to this flooding cycle, extreme floods (such as in 2000 and to a lesser extent in 2011) can be extremely destructive. For decades now, national-level initiatives have shaped the delta to increase agricultural production with initiatives such as canal dredging for improved irrigation and drainage, dyke building to protect specific areas from flooding and allowing triple rice cropping systems, and through the development of sluice gates to attempt limiting salinity intrusion in inland coastal areas. The last decades have therefore seen rapid transformations in the delta, both from a biophysical perspective and, through programmes of market liberalization (notable since doi moi), from social and economic perspectives.