Hydropower in the Lower Mekong River Basin Is Tipping Toward Sustainability
Hydropower is booming in the Lower Mekong River basin. In 2010, more than 3,200 MW of hydropower capacity—about a tenth of the basin’s total potential—had already been developed. Many more dams are currently under construction.
The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food is a global research-for-development program. During the past four years, the program has implemented 20 research projects that aimed to advance sustainable hydropower and foster equitable development in the Lower Mekong River basin. While CPWF formally wraps up next month, many of its activities will be continued under a new program: the CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems.
I spoke to Dr. Kim Geheb, basin leader of CPWF in the Mekong region, about the program’s results and its quest for sustainable hydropower.
Marianne: What are, in your view, some of the costs, benefits, and consequences that we should expect to see as a result of hydropower development in the Mekong region?
Kim: The most obvious benefit is that lots more electricity will be generated and this, in turn, will encourage development and generate incomes for regional companies and countries. The flip side is that it could lead to significant ecological problems, impacts on food production and supply, and difficulties with distributing the benefits of hydropower.
Hydropower changes things for rivers, for ecologies, and for societies. It is pointless to talk about a zero-impact dam—that doesn’t exist. What really matters is the magnitude of change, and we simply don’t know enough about the likely changes that may occur from all of this hydropower development. This ambiguity makes hydropower management, governance, and decision making imperfect.
Marianne: How has CPWF worked to address the challenges associated with hydropower development?
Kim: Regarding the sustainability of the dams themselves, our work has focused on, for example, how you can improve the ecological productivity of a reservoir by creating artificial wetlands within them [MK3]. We have also looked at modifying dam operating rules—meaning the rules that govern how a dam is operated to meet peak electricity demand—not to affect electricity production in any way, but rather to increase livelihood opportunities downstream [MK1]. We have investigated how reservoir water can be used for irrigation purposes, and, intriguingly, we have found that extremely small reductions in reservoir water volume can yield very significant irrigation dividends [http://www.optimisingcascades.org] .
In terms of resettlement, we have identified ways in which relatively well-known agricultural technologies can be applied within resettled communities [MK1] to increase their food production.
We have looked at governance and equality. Hydropower very often represents a new set of opportunities, and we have found, for example, that men take advantage and benefit from those opportunities in different ways than women do. We have come up with products that advise hydropower companies on how to reduce this gender gap [MK13] and ensure that women can capitalize on new opportunities in exactly the same ways that men can.
Marianne: What do you think is CPWF’s most important finding in the Mekong region?
Kim: We have generated hundreds of outputs, and if I were to summarize them, I would say that we have found that dams can be built, managed, and operated in ways that can yield additional food production and societal benefit—still without impacting the dam’s ability to generate electricity.
In my mind, there is really nothing to lose by applying the kinds of solutions we propose—on the contrary, there is plenty to gain. For hydropower companies, the gains are in their reputation and in the recognition that they are socially and environmentally responsible operations. For communities, the gains are greater food security. For the environment, these solutions imply greater sustainability and continued ecosystem services. For whole countries, gains include maintained or increased income streams and electricity for all.
Marianne: It is my impression that the majority of dam operators in the Mekong region are not currently implementing measures that can secure sustainability. What do you think will be a tipping point—when will everyone realize that sustainability is really a win-win question?
Kim: Well, I think that it is already happening. I think it is actually an outcome that emerges from globalization. A dam developer working in the Mekong region happens to have shareholders in, for example, North America, and for those shareholders these are the kinds of things that might matter. I also think that it is increasingly the case that companies, particularly those that operate outside their own countries, must have strong corporate social and environmental policies. As a consequence, several companies are already reaching out to us and are keen to learn from us.
Marianne: In addition to conducting research, CPWF has also worked to establish dialogue spaces in the region. Why is it important to get people talking to each other?
Kim: For us it was very important to try to reduce the polarity in the debate about hydropower in the Mekong River basin. Here, we are talking about two distinct but opposing positions—and there’s not necessarily that much substance in between. So, we were quite keen to try to reduce the polarity and create a more matured, more reasoned, and less speculative debate around hydropower.
Every year, we have held an event that we call the Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy. The event became this crucible where all of these stakeholders were able to get together in a well-managed environment and where they were exposed to the research results that we had generated. Potential users of our research were able to provide feedback, to voice their concerns, and to forge an understanding of all of these different tools and technologies that can promote sustainable hydropower.
There is a need to have a regional conversation about what sustainable hydropower actually is—and this event has been particularly important in advancing that conversation and gaining regional buy-in for the idea.
Marianne: Do you think any regional consensus on the idea of sustainable hydropower is emerging?
Kim: Like with all big ideas, there will always be hundreds of interpretations. I think, if we were to synthesize it, what we are talking about is to frame hydropower development as the sharing of benefits as opposed to the generation of electricity alone.
I think that those in favor of electricity supply have begun talking much, much more about the need to equitably and equally share the benefits of hydropower. At the same time, those who are very concerned about benefit sharing have come around to thinking about the significant demand for electricity within the region. Electricity has very tangible uses and benefits—something that is clear to anyone who flicks on a light switch.
Marianne: So, in saying that actors on both sides of this polarized debate are now approaching each other, are you also saying something about the future of the Lower Mekong River basin? Is development going to go in a more sustainable direction?
Kim: Yes, I think it will—mainly because it has to—and we are now strategically placed to nourish that process. We have worked very hard to maintain political neutrality in this debate; we try to introduce depoliticized knowledge into the debate, but we never take a side. The research needs to speak for itself. Now it is really up to the participants in the debate to evaluate the knowledge and to consider how they are going to use it. We are here, ready to help them, if they do chose to use and apply our research.
Kim Geheb holds a doctorate from the University of Sussex; he has seventeen years of experience conducting, implementing, managing, and leading natural resources research-for-development projects in the developing world.
Marianne Gadeberg is a freelance writer, editor, and communications specialist.