The Manwan Dam, in Yunnan Province China, was completed in 1996 and was the Mekong River's first mainstream dam.

Mekong Power Grid

For millions of people in the Mekong region, its bountiful rivers are a symbol of life that provide for fish, transportation, water for agriculture, and many other critical needs. However, to a number of powerful energy companies, backed by the region’s governments and organizations such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB), these same rivers are a tempting resource to be exploited for electricity generation.

Since the early 1990s, the ADB has relentlessly promoted a regional power trading scheme. Under the Mekong Power Grid plan, a network of high-voltage transmission lines would open up Laos,Yunnan Province of China, and Burma to hydropower development to feed power to the energy-hungry cities of Thailand and Vietnam.

The Mekong Power Grid is a risky way to meet the region's energy needs. Many hydropower projects built in the region during the last decade have left a legacy of damaged livelihoods, cultures and ecosystems. Some of the most controversial hydropower projects are proposed to connect to the grid, including the Tasang Dam in Burma, the Jinghong and Nuozhadu dams on the Lancang/Upper Mekong in China, and the Sambor Dam in Cambodia (see map).

In preparing the Mekong Power Grid plan, the ADB has failed to take into account the wide-ranging social and environmental impacts that would inevitably result from extensive hydropower development. It did not seek the opinion of the people of the region whose lives are dependent on the river’s resources and who would be affected. Despite the plan falling well short of international energy planning standards, the ADB continues to encourage the region’s governments to implement it.

Rapid economic growth in the Mekong region, especially in Thailand and Vietnam, has resulted in a ever-growing demand for more electricity. Fortunately, sustainable solutions to meet the region's power needs do exist, including a high potential for energy efficiency, accompanied by numerous promising renewable energy options such as biomass, solar, wind and micro-hydro. Regrettably, the wide-ranging benefits of these options remain poorly recognized and therefore presently under-developed.

International Rivers is working with partners in the region to demonstrate the shortcomings of the ADB’s Mekong Power Grid plan and to promote better energy planning practices through which the value of sustainable energy options would become evident.