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Mekong River Basin Research Highlights


Optimizing the use of water in reservoirs can reduce poverty and foster development in the Mekong





Summary of CPWF Research in the Mekong River Basin

Women and DamsThe Mekong River is one of the most bio-diverse rivers in the world, second only to the Amazon. The river rises in the Tibetan Plateau of the Himalayas and flows through three provinces of China, then Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam all the way to the South China Sea.

About 70 million people live in the basin, and many of them depend on the river for food and income. However, during the past couple of decades, the region has experienced an unprecedented surge in hydropower development. In 2010, more than 3,200 MW of hydropower capacity, about a tenth of the region’s total potential, had been installed on the Mekong River’s tributaries. Many more dams are either planned or currently under construction.

The debate on hydropower development in the region is contentious and highly political. Major tensions revolve around the shift from sustenance agriculture to an economy based heavily on natural resources-based sectors, most notably hydropower. Particularly the question of how to distribute the costs and benefits of hydropower is a point of discussion. The main players in the debate are Learning by Seeinggovernments, hydropower developers, finance institutions, non-government organizations, and, to a lesser extent, civil society groups.

CPWF has worked in the Mekong River basin since 2004. From 2004 to 2008, the program implemented thirteen projects across the region. With the launch of its second phase (2009-2013), CPWF narrowed in the scope of its research to focus primarily on how to optimize the use of reservoirs and foster sustainable hydropower in support of poverty reduction and sustainable development.

One of CPWF’s major achievements in the region was to establishes spaces for dialogue between stakeholders, who in the past did not engage in fruitful exchanges, and to input new knowledge into this dialogue. CPWF contributed to creating conditions under which sustainable hydropower in the Mekong region is a possibility.

The CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems’ Greater Mekong Sub-Region research is building on CPWF’s work in the Mekong.

Browse the tabs on the left to learn more.


View all publications from the Mekong.

Summary of CPWF Research in the Mekong Basin

There are few other places in the world, perhaps none, with such intensive dams development as the Mekong Basin. The major tensions in the Mekong revolve around dams and other infrastructure development and the shift from economies based on agriculture and primary production to manufacturing, industry and services.

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State of Knowledge Series (Briefs)

The State of Knowledge Series papers are easy-to-read reviews of the state of knowledge about a subject relevant to Mekong hydropower development. They are meant to be an unbiased appraisal of what we know (and don’t know) about a subject. The four State of Knowledge papers cover the following topics: Mekong fisheries, Mekong sediment basics, corporate social responsibility in Mekong hydropower development, and China’s influence on hydropower development in the Lancang River and lower Mekong River basin.

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Fishery productivity and its contribution to overall agricultural production in the Lower Mekong River Basin (Working paper)

In the Mekong, fishery production and value have been the subject of many studies and some data are available from national and international statistical databases. None of these, however, offer a reliable, consistent set of data on the spatial and temporal trends at a similar level of resolution across the basin. This study combined official statistics with several consumption-based estimates to examine the spatial and temporal trends in production and value of capture fish and aquaculture.

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Optimizing cascades or system of reservoirs in small catchments (Working papers)

This website contains data and papers from research conducted between 2010 and 2013 on assessments of the multiple uses of water in reservoir cascades. It includes interactive maps for exploring trade-offs in the Nam Theun/Nam Kading River in Lao PDR and the Upper and Lower Sesan River in Vietnam and Cambodia.

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Water Rights and Social Justice in the Mekong Region (Book)

This book focuses on the complex nature of water rights and social justice in the Mekong region. The chapters delve into the diverse social, political and cultural dynamics that shape the various realities and scales of water governance in the region, in an effort to bring to the forefront some of the local nuances required in the formulation of a larger vision of justice in water governance.

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Learning by Seeing: A Hydropower Study Tour

One Mekong project on ‘Bridging the Hydropower Policy-Implementation Gap’ took 20 participants on a study tour of two hydropower projects in Lao PDR known for their high quality social and environmental programs – Theun-Hinboun and Nam Theun 2. Through the trip, participants, including the deputy governor, village heads and technical staff from the project’s study site, gained valuable first-hand knowledge about resettlement practices, grievance mechanisms and government coordination committees.

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Rebutting extremism: a comment on the debate surrounding the Xayaburi Dam in Laos

You can’t go pouring 400,000 tonnes of concrete across a river and imagine that things won’t change. But extreme perspectives on hydropower only serve to harden people’s positions. CPWF’s research in the Mekong identified a multiplicity of ways in which dams can reinforce livelihoods, for example by enabling the development of rice-fish production systems; how cascades can be better managed; how trans-boundary institutions are needed to cope with the cumulative impacts of dams; and how hydropower decision-making processes can be opened up to accommodate many different perspectives thereby improving dam design and operation.

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Women and Dams

The impacts from the construction of a dam on women are numerous and will vary according to the different relocation sites. What is certain is that, while the construction of a dam is often a catastrophe for anyone in the community, the effect on women is more severe than the one suffered by men.

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Assessing the Water Demand Implications of Development Plans in Central Vietnam

How do you promote better management of water from a reservoir that provides services to two independently managed, and rapidly growing, provinces? One CPWF Innovation Fund Project, entitled ‘Building Provincial Capacity to Understand the Water Demand Implications of Socio-Economic Development Plans in Central Viet Nam’ set out to answer that question.

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Water, Food and Energy: A Back-of-Envelope Analysis

Against a backdrop of changing climates, dams have considerable potential for storing water, and for contributing to agriculture. Yet, over 71% of the world’s dams are for single purpose only (50% for irrigation, 18% for hydropower). What matters about dams is where they’re placed (it’s always the lowest one in a reach that matters for the system as a whole), and their cumulative impact.

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Mekong Hydropower and Dams Map

The CPWF-Mekong dams database is an interactive, online map that details the location, purpose, and size of all planned, under-construction, and operating dams in the Mekong region. It is the first time that a comprehensive overview of all regional dam activity is available online. When accessing the map online, users can not only see where dams are located, but also view more detailed information about many of the indicated dams, such as their purpose, size, and generating capacity.

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Balancing the Scales: How gender impact assessment can contribute to gender justice in hydropower

‘Balancing the Scales’ is a manual designed to help planners and decision makers identify, understand, predict and respond to gender differences, opportunities and needs. The guide includes questions for staff involved in developing and managing projects and plans. The manual also helps companies consider their corporate practices beyond the project level, especially their operational policies and their project management frameworks through a lens of advancing gender equality and women’s rights.

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Basin Challenge: An Interactive Simulation Game

The Basin Challenge game allows single players or teams of participants to experience the challenges associated with developing a river basin. The game is played over 50 turns with each turn representing a year. In this way, participants can experience the potential short and long-term benefits, costs and challenges associated with development.

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Guidance Manual on Commune Agroecosystems Analysis in Cambodia

The last decade has seen rapid economic progress in Cambodia. Rural households are still mainly dependent on agriculture and its related subsectors for their livelihoods. This handbook presents five tools for analysis (spatial, temporal, livelihoods, economic and decision making, and systems) when implementing Commune Agroecosystems Analysis in Cambodia.

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Companion Modelling: Water Management Learning by Doing in Laos

Companion Modelling, or ComMod, is a participatory modelling approach that makes use of role-playing games associated with agent-based computer models. Agent-based modelling allows participants to make links between the biophysical and socioeconomic characteristics of the environment and natural resource systems. The ComMod experiment in Nam Theun-Nam Kading River basin of Lao PDR helped build the capacity of the newly formed river basin organization secretariat staff and members of technical working groups through a learning-by-doing process.

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Browse the projects below to learn more.


  • CPWF-Mekong Website
  • CGIAR Research Program on Water, Land and Ecosystems--Greater Mekong Focal Region
  • CPWF-Mekong Flickr
  • CPWF-Mekong Slideshare