The swift transformations driven by economic development, urbanisation and industrialisation have brought notable changes to the Mekong River. As the largest river in Southeast Asia, the Mekong plays a pivotal role in fostering growth by offering opportunities in hydropower generation, agriculture, fisheries, transportation and trade.

Stretching nearly 5,000km from the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong ranks among the world’s largest rivers, traversing China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Its significance extends to being the origin of the Mekong River Delta, one of the globe’s most biodiverse regions.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) reports a diverse ecosystem within the river basin, housing over 20,000 plant species and 850 fish species identified thus far.

Approximately 80 per cent of the Lower Mekong Basin’s nearly 65 million inhabitants rely on the river and its abundant natural resources. Given this dependency, sustainable development is imperative for the well-being of both the environment and the communities along the river.

The MRC has warned that inadequate coordination and development measures might impede further growth, presenting new challenges for nations in the Lower Mekong Basin. These challenges encompass environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, hydropower development, climate change and heightened risks of floods and droughts.

Conscientious approach

Prime Minister Hun Manet also recently affirmed the government’s stance against hydroelectric power development on the Mekong River. This commitment aligns with the principles established by the preceding government mandate, prioritising the avoidance of environmental and ecological impact.

“The government, including both the sixth and seventh mandates, is steadfast in its decision. We will not construct hydroelectric dams directly on the Mekong River, prioritising the preservation of the ecological environment along the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers due to the significant impact of such dams,” he stated during the groundbreaking ceremony for the 150-megawatt Stung Tatai Leu Dam in Koh Kong province’s Thma Bang district on November 30.

“We are conscientious about our approach. While acknowledging the need for electricity for growth, we are committed to identifying locations that do not adversely affect the environment and ecology. Regardless, the impact of projects must be considered, as construction inevitably brings consequences,” he added.

A study jointly conducted by the MRC and the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Centre (LMC Water Centre) and presented at the 13th MRC Regional Stakeholder Forum on October 5 in Luang Prabang, Laos, detailed the severe impact of climate-related droughts on the river. This impact included historically low water flow from 2019 to 2021 and a rare backflow that narrowed Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake.

The study also identified water infrastructure development along the Mekong as a contributing factor, influencing natural flow patterns by increasing dry season water flows and decreasing water flow in the flood season.

Key recommendations, particularly short-term ones, urge countries to collaboratively explore the various impacts of development and climate change in critical river areas. The study outlines the importance of sharing crucial data, including real-time information on water levels and hydropower operations.

Mak Bunthoeun, programme manager for the NGO Forum on Cambodia, told The Post that data should be accessible and comprehensible on public websites for community members. Ensuring ease of understanding is crucial for the public, local communities and relevant institutions, including civil society organisations, to utilise the data effectively for development purposes.

He stated the significant role the MRC should play in widely disseminating and promoting the sharing of data from each dam operator in a manner easily understood by the general public.

Real-time dam data

“Laos began providing real-time data for its 51 major dams via the Facebook page of its Ministry of Energy and Mines in mid-August this year. The data, presented in PDF format, is in the Lao language, covering details on water level, volume and dam operations. Updates are conducted every five days, constituting valuable shared information on the current operation of hydroelectric power dams within the primary Mekong basin,” he said.

He added that Vietnam and Thailand also share timely information about dam operations on their official websites.

Chanthanet Boualapha, Lao vice-minister of national resources and environment, noted during the regional forum that the area has swiftly evolved in the past 30 years. He underscored new developments across environmental, social, economic dimensions and climate cooperation, bringing both new perspectives and challenges.

He said that Laos recognises the urgency to act promptly to enhance the livelihoods of communities along the river.

He also expressed appreciation to the developers of the Xayaburi, Luang Prabang and Don Sanhong hydropower projects, commending their efforts in providing information, addressing concerns of Mekong countries, and their openness to sharing statistical data and information.

“We encourage and expect comparable efforts from the developers of the Pak Beng, Pak Lay, Sanakham and Phou Ngoy projects. This will ensure responsible development that addresses the concerns of neighbouring countries and communities whose livelihoods are directly linked to the river,” he said.

“As hydropower stands as one of the cleanest sources of renewable energy, the Lao government embraces the development of environmentally friendly and sustainable hydropower projects. This includes thorough feasibility studies to mitigate potential negative impacts on our environment and communities,” he added.

Collaborative future efforts

The Sanakham hydropower project in northern Laos is set for completion by 2028, and the Pak Lay project in northwestern Laos is expected to finish in 2029. The Phou Ngoy dam, Laos’ seventh project in the Lower Mekong Basin, is also projected to be online in 2029.

During a November MRC meeting in Siem Reap, Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology Thor Chetha said the future of the Mekong Basin relies on cooperative efforts, joint construction and strategic implementation. Cambodia is committed to continued collaboration for the sustainable development of the region.

The MRC secretariat underscores its fourfold intention behind promoting dam operation data sharing among Mekong countries.

Firstly, it seeks to enhance cooperation and coordination along the Mekong and its major tributaries.

Secondly, the goal is to improve the accuracy of flood and drought forecasting in the area.

Thirdly, the intention is to strengthen an integrated river monitoring system, coordinating sediment, water quality, fisheries, water flow and ecological health monitoring.

The final aim is to design adaptation or mitigation measures for the benefit of Mekong countries and communities, supporting better-informed decision-making.

“The MRC aims to formalise operational data sharing among countries, focusing on major tributary and mainstream dams for enhanced flood and drought forecasting. This involves two stages: Sharing historical and real-time operational data, and providing forecast operations and flow changes to support efficient hydropower operations and stakeholder notifications,” it said.

The secretariat noted 122 hydropower projects in the tributaries of the Lower Mekong Basin in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

Cambodia has 11 (two in operation), Laos has 90 (65 in operation), Thailand has seven (all in operation), and Vietnam has 14 (all in operation). Regarding the Mekong mainstream, there are 11 hydropower dams: two planned in Cambodia, eight in Laos (two in operation), and one Thailand-Laos joint project.