Mekong River: Political Realities Could Undermine Possible Solution to the Co-Existence of Hydropower and Food Production

13 December 2017 Madeleine Lovelle, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


The Mekong River underpins the food security of millions of South-East Asians. The 4,350 kilometre-long river runs through China, Burma/ Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Upstream riparians including China, Laos and Cambodia currently have plans to develop hydropower stations along the upper reaches of the Mekong, but these developments are likely to threaten food production and livelihoods lower downstream.


Almost 100 dams are planned for construction along the tributaries of the Mekong River. While these dams have the ability to provide clean energy and significantly increase the economic development of the region, they also have the potential to damage food security downstream. Researchers from the Arizona State University claim, however, that they have developed a mathematical formula to balance the hydropower needs of the stations upstream, while ensuring that fisheries downstream are not adversely affected.

Annual floods are important for fisheries downstream along the Mekong. According to John Sabo and colleagues, the algorithm would allow long low-flow periods punctuated by pulses of flooding. By analysing data between 1993 and 2012, the scientists developed an algorithm that, if properly applied, can ensure that drought conditions are followed by short floods to allow for optimal conditions and the flow of essential nutrients downstream. The researchers believe that a balance may be struck between conservation of the Mekong’s food and livelihood security, while allowing upper riparians to simultaneously benefit from hydro-electricity generation.

If the Mekong states follow the drought-flood cycles set out in the algorithm, their concerns related to the development of hydropower stations on the river could be reduced, however, other factors are likely to hinder its adoption. Funding has been secured to allow the researchers to better understand other factors that could be affected by the development of hydro-dams upstream. Before any final decisions are made about altering the flow of the river, further research will be conducted into how to continue rice production without threatening food security, how to maintain the nutritional quality of food that is produced under this scientific formula and the broader ecological goals that could benefit the Mekong.

Despite these areas for further research, there is also an additional hurdle that will need to be considered before scientists can become too reliant on the algorithm; getting all six riparians to agree to any alterations to the flow of the Mekong. As with any transboundary river decision, multilateral co-operation will be required to ensure that all countries feel as they have been consulted. The Mekong River Commission may be considered “weak” at generating co-operation along the Mekong, but its existence is important to encourage sustainable development along the river and promote public understanding of any proposal.

If further research suggests that the algorithm is a credible solution to the problems of water sharing on the Mekong, scientists will need to ensure that all riparians follow the drought-flood cycle. The development of an algorithm along the Mekong River is a hopeful idea that could alleviate the problems surrounding competing needs for electricity and food. Research that includes a political strategy to include all six riparians of the Mekong must ensure that the challenges to implementing this technology do not impede its chances of success.

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