Hydropower Dams on the Mekong River: A Threat to the River, People, and Regional Stability

Hydropower Dams on the Mekong River: A Threat to the River, People, and Regional Stability from East-West Center on Vimeo.


(Washington D.C.) April 22– Proposals to create dams on the Mekong River in Southeast Asia will cause irreparable damage to the river ecosystem and destroy the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of people who depend on the river. In an East-West Center in Washington Asia Pacific Security Seminar, Dr. Richard Cronin discussed the impact that dam-building projects on the Mekong River will have on the people, the ecosystem, and regional stability.


The Mekong River extends from China through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Approximately 70 million people in the Mekong Basin depend on the river for agriculture, and on its fish for 80% of their protein intake. In an effort to provide power and facilitate development, regional governments have embarked upon dam-building projects, from Chinese dams on the upper Mekong to numerous planned projects on the lower Mekong in Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. The governments building these dams hope that the projects will contribute to development in their own countries, but Dr. Cronin argued that the damage caused by these dams will far outweigh any development benefits.


Dr. Cronin explained that the proposed web of dams will cause population displacement, threaten food security, and block the migration routes for fish. Population displacement will not only eliminate traditional villages and cultures, it will push these people into untouched habitats that will suffer environmental damage as people move into them. Dr. Cronin noted that it is unlikely that the displaced people will experience a better quality of life in their new homes than the ones that they will be forced to abandon. Food security will also be threatened, as changing water levels both upstream and downstream of the dams affect agriculture by decreasing the water available for rice production. Further, the blockage of fish migration routes will be particularly dangerous for the region, as 70% of the fish population of the river migrates upstream during the dry season to lay eggs, and then travels back downstream in the rainy season. Dams on the Mekong could therefore irreparably change the ecosystems upon which the entire region depends.


The impact of the dams on the Mekong is not, however, well understood by regional governments. Dr. Cronin explained that regional governments do not consider the Mekong River as a whole when proposing their projects, but only their small part of it. They also do not consider or understand the impact of the dams on downstream nations and communities, or on the river as an ecosystem. Many governments, he argued, cannot see beyond the energy benefits such dams will bring their major cities and manufacturing areas, ignoring the damaging impact that the projects will have on the 80% of people who live in rural areas and depend on the rivers. As Dr. Cronin explained, the dams would have development advantages, but the advantages will be to only a minority of the people who live in big cities.


However, Dr. Cronin explained that the situation is not yet irreversible. Many of the dam-building projects are as yet proposals, and no construction has begun. He noted that the United States and other counties have the chance to work with the regional governments to find solutions that will cause less damage to the Mekong and its important ecosystem, while also addressing the very real concerns of regional development. The United States can offer bilateral assistance to these countries, providing them with technological and educational support while also offering advice on water governance and preparing cost-benefit analyses. The United States can also offer advice on climate change awareness and suggest alternative energy arrangements that will be less damaging to the river.


Additionally, Dr. Cronin noted that the United States can promote international and regional efforts to address development while preserving necessary ecosystems and the environment. He explained that Washington should support multilateral decision-making regionally to ensure that regional governments understand the larger impact of their construction projects. Collaborative research projects could also encourage regional solutions to developmental and environmental challenges. Further, Dr. Cronin suggested that the United States could use its diplomatic muscle to discuss the issue with China, the country on the upstream of the Mekong and therefore very important to the survival of the river and the people downstream. He explained that it is uncertain whether China’s leaders understand the full implications of their dam-building projects, not only in terms of damage to the Mekong River, but in terms of backlash from its neighbors if China’s projects damage their livelihoods. If the region can begin working together to address common environmental and development needs, the Mekong River ecosystem might yet be saved.


To view some of the animation work associated with Dr. Cronin's Mekong River project, please visit  (external site).


Dr. Richard P. Cronin is a senior associate and head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center. Currently, he is working issues concerning the Mekong Basin, China-Southeast Asian relations, US-ASEAN relations, and the regional impact of the global economic crisis. Dr. Cronin joined the Stimson Center after a long career as senior Asian affairs specialist at the Congressional Research Service (CRS) of the Library of Congress, where his research and research management responsibilities spanned the entire range of U.S.-Asia policy issues. Cronin has taught comparative political economy of Asia at Washington area universities and in Tokyo, and lectured extensively on Asian political and security issues at the National Defense University, the Foreign Service Institute, and in more than a dozen Asia-Pacific countries.