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Lee Baumgartner and Garry Thorncraft/WLE Greater Mekong.

Small is worrying: tributaries, ‘small’ hydro and the Mekong hydropower debate

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

This post is excerpted from the WLE Greater Mekong blog. Read the full article on their site.

So, last week I attended a meeting held at Can Tho University entitled ‘Sustainable Uses of Mekong Water Resources’. With Can Tho sitting squarely in the middle of the Mekong Delta, and suffering dreadfully from the current drought, the debate was highly emotional. And often very loud.

Participants acknowledged El Niño and climate change as two variables responsible for the absence of rain. But most of the ire was directed at mainstream dams north of the delta.Mainstream dams. South of the China border, none of these are complete, and just two are under construction. The Laotian dams were certainly focussed upon, but most of the concern was with the Chinese dams. Recently, China has released a considerable quantum of water from their dams, with the stated aim of assisting their drought-stricken neighbours to the south. The reasons for these releases were treated with scepticism. Participants argued that these were either ‘normal releases’, or otherwise done to enable heavy-draft Chinese shipping within the Golden Triangle, or perhaps to signify good-will associated with the concurrent launch of the Chinese-inspired Lancang-Mekong Cooperation.

dam mekong hydropower
From a presentation on "Implications of not constructing sustainable hydro – Lessons Learned from USA and Australia," delivered at the Lao Fishway and Hydro Workshop, January 2012, Lao Aquatic Resources Research Institute, Vientiane, Lao PDR. 
Lee Baumgartner and Garry Thorncraft/WLE Greater Mekong.

Rivers as systems

My presentation focused on what I call ‘whole system thinking’. If the Mekong is to be regarded as a system (which, indeed, it is), then we have to understand that interventions in one part of the system will result in vibrations across the system as a whole. I queried the focus on mainstream dams. Why controversies over the river are so preoccupied with these is unclear. The only operational mainstream dams are in China; the two Laotian ones are still under construction. In any case, while the Chinese dams are reservoir dams, the Laotian dams are run-of-river, meaning that while water to the Mekong Delta may be delayed by a few days, it will arrive. This preoccupation on mainstream dams is perplexing if we think about the system as a whole. A whole system approach assumes that tributary dams are as relevant as mainstream ones, something which Guy Ziv and his colleagues have, I think, demonstrated well.

Read the rest of the post on the WLE Greater Mekong Blog