Audacious Water
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Audacious Water

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Dams on the Mekong: Why I’m Focused on Siting & Operations

“Just saying no” to all dams is a fight we can’t win. That’s why we need a more nuanced approach.

My post last month on the Mekong sparked a lot of interesting reactions. To recap: In April, the New York Times published an article suggesting that China was using dams to intentionally bank the Upper Mekong’s water against future climate-change driven shortages — and that satellite image analysis revealed that banking had caused arguably the worst drought in living history for the Lower Mekong and its 70 million people. It’s an alluring argument.

My counterargument: there’s another way of looking at what is happening on the Mekong — one that’s less about a power play and more about the need for a transboundary solution through which all the Mekong’s countries (including China) and people could win.

My viewpoint got a lot of heat. So I’d like to respond with a few observations.

First, the tone of most criticism of China or anybody building dams on the Mekong basin is that the dams that are there are bad — full stop. The question I always ask in response (slightly tongue-in-cheek): “What are you going to do about the dams in place? Are you going to send the Monkey Wrench Gang to blow them up?” Of course not.

Reality has already outstripped the “no dams” position? “No dams” isn’t going to happen. So now what do we do?

— John Sabo

Because there are a lot of dams: 13 on the main stem of the Mekong (11 in China and two in Laos), as well as more than 25 between Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam on the tributaries. My best guess: at least ten are planned for the basin over the next several years. Reality has already outstripped the “no dams” position? “No dams” isn’t going to happen. So now what do we do?

This is why I’m focused on optimally siting the new ones and making sure those already built or planned ones have the best possible data and information to optimize their outcomes for all stakeholders.

On siting: We need to make some distinctions here. If there’s a dam in the middle of the basin, does it matter if another one is built upstream of it? Not a lot from the standpoint of fish passage. But what about one downstream of that existing dam? Very much so. In either case, siting matters — dams that allow for as much access to upstream tributaries as possible are less impactful than those that don’t.

So we need to train part of our focus on where the next dams are placed. And we need to work hard with engineering companies to develop ways to reduce the impacts of location and operations on ecology. There’s no other choice. We need to bake in ecological mitigation into the contracts and PPAs for the dams in the first place. If you don’t, we’ll be stuck with suboptimal operations and outcomes for the next 30 years.

We’re in a race. With the dams that are commissioned, we’re racing to get them to work in a way that could deliver outcomes better than doom. And we’re racing to prevent companies from building dams that could be horribly disruptive to the Mekong’s ecology.

“Just saying no” to all dams is a race — and a fight — that never could have been won.

For more information about ASU Future H2O’s work and research on creating opportunities for global water abundance, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

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