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

22 January 2020 Phoebe Sleet, Research Analyst, Global Food and Water Crises Research Programme


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

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


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

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

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

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

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