CRF Blog

Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?

by Bill Hayes

In Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?, National Geographic looks at how damming the river offers clean electricity but dampens fish and rice production.

The Mekong begins on the Tibetan Plateau and runs for more than 2,600 miles through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. It’s the longest river in Southeast Asia, the seventh longest in Asia, and — most important for the people who live along it — the world’s most productive inland fishery. Cambodians and Laotians catch more freshwater fish per capita than anyone else on the planet; in many places along the river, fish is a synonym for food. Grilled, fried, or boiled; wrapped in palm leaves; garnished with ant eggs; or simply mixed with rice in a wooden bowl, the more than 500 known species of Mekong fish have sustained millions of people through droughts, deluges, and even the genocidal Cambodian regime of Pol Pot.

Yet the Mekong’s narrow gorges and roaring waterfalls, which frustrated 19th-century European explorers in search of a trade route from the South China Sea to western China, have long tempted dambuilders. In the 1960s the United States advocated the construction of a series of hydropower dams on the lower Mekong, hoping to develop the region’s economy and head off the rise of communism in Vietnam. The plans languished, the region descended into war, and in the 1990s China, not Southeast Asia, became the first to dam the main stem of the river.

Today Southeast Asia is relatively peaceful, and for the most part, its economies are humming. But only about a third of Cambodians and just over two-thirds of Laotians have access to electricity, and that power is often painfully expensive. Economic and population growth will further strain electricity supplies: A 2013 analysis by the International Energy Agency predicts that the region’s demand for power will increase by 80 percent in the next 20 years. Clearly the region needs more energy — and if the worst effects of global warming are to be avoided, the world needs that energy to produce as little carbon as possible. The hydropower potential of the Mekong is more tempting than ever.

Dam construction on the lower Mekong is overseen, nominally, by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Funded by international development agencies and by its four member nations — Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos — the commission is held together not by a legally binding treaty but by a shared interest in the river and in regional peace. [more]