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A River Runs Through It

Almost 60 medium or large hydropower dams are now operational, around 30 under construction and more than 90 planned or proposed.

Banking Reform in the Lower Mekong Countries

But many of the anticipated impacts of the dams are not directly about the water supply. Eighty percent of the 60 million inhabitants of the Lower Mekong Basin rely directly on the river for their food and livelihoods.

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Fish is the major source of dietary protein for households. Dams have already had negative impacts on fisheries, river ecologies, and riverbank gardens that depend on the natural, sediment-filled flood pulse of the river.

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Local residents and activists say they are catching fewer fish, which is pushing them into agriculture. Freshwater weeds known as kai that fish feed on are being lost, and riverbank gardens need chemical fertiliser inputs because of the loss of sediment. These effects are expected to worsen: researchers warn that basic food security in the Lower Mekong Basin is at high risk of disruption. This refers to its ability to transfer energy, materials and organisms between locations; its sediment flow; and most significantly, its fisheries. The LMC, for example, is helping to shape environmental outcomes along the river, as well as the economic model in the region.

This is strongly aligned with the Belt and Road Initiative BRI , through which China is advancing regional development and integration. Near Chiang Khong, on the banks of the Mekong where northern Thailand borders Laos, chinadialogue visited a proposed SEZ — a state-supported industrial park offering investment incentives such as tax breaks — that aims to attract foreign investment and export-oriented development. If it is built, it will destroy a wetland that serves as an ecological resource and carbon sink. For the locals opposed to the development, the wetland is a critical, communally managed source of fish they have documented at least 87 different local fish species in their catch, eight of them endangered , as well as bamboo and herbal medicines.

They claim the government and project developers have not consulted communities or assessed the environmental impact.

Mekong Regional Initiatives

It claims animals are openly sold there, including rhinos, helmeted hornbill, gaur, leopards, turtles and the goat-like serow. Special Economic Zones are often regarded as Chinese enclaves replete with bars and casinos, such as the Kings Romans Casino in the Golden Triangle Chinese developers also show a strong interest in developing river navigation for trade. Chinese plans approved by the Thai government include extensive blasting of rocks, islets and rapids in Thailand and Laos to enable navigation of larger boats from Yunnan province, in southwestern China.

Accelerated industrial, hydropower and shipping development brings great risks, however, with potentially devastating social, environmental and food security consequences.

Lower Mekong Initiative Best Practices Exchange

The Council Study warns of severe impacts and trade-offs inherent in current and proposed Mekong hydropower expansion, due to substantial and transboundary losses to fisheries, sediment transport and other critical ecosystem services. For example, the study finds that current hydropower plans would reduce the amount of sediment reaching the Mekong Delta by up to 97 percent. Sediment enriches and replenishes the entire basin and supports agriculture and fisheries, in turn supporting the economies of Lower Mekong Basin countries.

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Given the Council Study findings, the factsheet poses the question: why are environmentally and socially destructive hydropower projects still moving forward? Other options to meet regional energy needs exist. A major recommendation of the Council Study is for MRC member countries to consider emerging energy technologies, such as solar and wind, as alternatives to hydropower. Assessing these alternatives, together with demand-side management and energy-efficiency measures, would provide major insights for managing water, energy, and food security more sustainably in the lower Mekong basin.

This is essential to achieving solutions that protect the environmental wealth and economic development of lower Mekong countries, while supporting livelihoods of river basin communities. During the Prior Consultation, Vietnam called for a ten-year moratorium on Mekong mainstream dams in order for more studies to better understand basin-wide impacts.

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This call was later supported by Cambodia. Unable to reach agreement on the Xayaburi Dam during the Prior consultation process, the MRC member states commissioned the Council Study to address major knowledge gaps and understand impacts of proposed developments, including mainstream hydropower dams.

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