Scientists Study Mekong River Changes

Helsinki University of Technology, in partnership with several other Finnish institutions, conducted a study on integrated water resource management in the Mekong River Basin focusing on development in the context of economic growth, social justice, environmental sustainability, and the role of the academic community.

In addition to field work and modeling studies, interdisciplinary, international workshops were held in Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. The results of this research can be found in Ambio.

Some of the challenges faced in water resource development include large-scale projects that require enormous capital expenditure and hardware, institutional and governance issues, transboundary politics, lack of transparency and local participation, and fragmented, competitive, multi-sector interests.

Two especially timely issues are population growth and hydropower development. There are currently 70 million people living in the Mekong River Basin, and this is expected to more than double over the next 40 years.

The Mekong Basin, while not currently classified as “water-stressed,"could produce enough to feed its population until between 2030 and 2040. However, the region is undergoing massive economic development and demographic changes that put this capacity in jeopardy. Vietnam may serve as the role model in this case. Even though it has lower water availability per person than other countries in the region, it has been able to increase food production for domestic consumption through high crop productivity and water- and land-use intensity.

Hydropower is currently seen as one of the most desirable “green"energy sources, and it represents a major mechanism for economic growth along the Mekong River. Eight large hydropower projects have been planned and are in various stages of implementation in China and Laos. Concerns from these projects include decreased flow downstream, threatened biodiversity and aquaculture, and downstream erosion.

A study presented by Li and He documents water-level response before and after construction of two large hydropower dams on the Upper Mekong in China. This study indicates that these dams have had no net impact on water levels: long-term interannual and monthly means have remained the same, and variations on annual and decadal scales show a response to climate variables, such as climate change and solar cycles, but not to dam construction. In fact, the dams, since they are for power generation and they do not siphon off much water for irrigation, may produce a net benefit: they can regulate wet-season flow to mitigate flood stages, and they can store water to enhance needed dry-season flow.

Other issues addressed in this volume include changes in sedimentation in the Mekong River and Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia; flood pulse alterations; climate indicators from the geologic past and climate change; impact assessments; links to poverty; social, environmental, and land-use changes; and water grids and other megaprojects.

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