Kai algae collected from the Mekong River in Northern Thailand is in decline because of dams built upstream in Yunnan, China

Mekong Regional Initiatives

The countries of mainland Southeast Asia, threaded together by the Mekong River, are experiencing a period of stability and rapid economic growth not witnessed for centuries. Since the early 1990s the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has pushed for closer economic integration amongst the countries of the lower Mekong Basin together with Yunnan and Guangxi Province, China, under its Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) program. The GMS program, with its emphasis on large-scale infrastructure development and natural resource exploitation, has increasingly become a threat to the ecological integrity of the Mekong river system, undermining the well-being of the millions that depend upon the river and its natural wealth.

One key element of the GMS program has been to encourage regional cooperation in the energy sector by establishing a regional power market fueled mainly by hydropower projects. Under the Mekong Power Grid plan, the ADB envisions a network of high-voltage transmission lines linking the Mekong countries and opening up mountainous regions mostly in Laos, the Yunnan province of China, and Burma to hydropower development. Yet despite its wide-ranging ramifications, the Mekong Power Grid has never been proven to be economically viable, nor have the cumulative social and environmental impacts been considered.

Claiming the Mekong’s water resources hold considerable potential for development, since 2005 the World Bank and Asian Development Bank have partnered with the Mekong River Commission to develop the “Mekong Water Resources Assistance Strategy” (MWRAS). The strategy supports the development of new large-scale water infrastructure, including hydropower dams, irrigation schemes, and trans-basin water diversion projects. The MWRAS claims unconvincingly that resultant social and environmental impacts on affected communities can be mitigated.

International Rivers is monitoring these regional programs promoted by international development agencies. We expose the flawed assumptions of these plans, and call for solutions that ensure equitable and sustainable development that does not destroy the resources upon which the region’s riparian communities depend.