Powering Up: Mekong Basin Connect

Countries in the Mekong Basin need a strategic, basin-wide approach to efficiently develop the basin’s water and energy resources in ways that protect the natural productivity of the river system. Otherwise, poorly coordinated hydropower planning on the Mekong mainstream and its tributaries will lead this resource rich region into a water and food security crisis.

In 2017, Stimson’s Southeast Asia program launched the Mekong Basin Connect Initiative, led by the Stimson Center, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), UC Berkeley’s Energy Resources Group, and The Nature Conservancy, to identify and promote new and pathways to achieve this ambitious goal.

The Challenge

Energy demand in Southeast Asia is rapidly rising, and China, Laos, and Cambodia all plan to expand hydropower capacity through 2030 to meet regional demand.

Laos has more than 140 dams on its list of proposed projects, and Cambodia has 40 more in its current inventory.

China plans to build 13 more dams in addition to its six existing dams on its portions of the upper Mekong known as the Lancang. But with less than 30% of potential dams built in the lower Mekong, there is an opportunity to influence hydropower development in ways that minimize social, environmental, and political risks.

The key problem is that there is no strategic plan guiding hydropower development in Laos or Cambodia. Projects move ahead individually as foreign investor interest coalesces with minimal consideration to how these dams cumulatively impact the river’s ecology.

If all or even most of the dams in Laos and Cambodia are built, the impacts downstream would be severe. The Mekong Delta is home to 18 million people and produces more than half of Vietnam’s total rice crop and 75% of its fruit and aquaculture products.

Dams trap the nutrient-rich sediment that flows downstream and naturally replenishes the delta, leading to increased salinity intrusion and threatening its economic productivity.

Annually, fishers harvest a wild fish catch of more than 2 million tons from the Lower Mekong Basin, making it the world’s largest inland fishery. This catch provides a key protein source for many of the 60 million people living in the basin.

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap acts as the river’s main fish nursery, and its productivity depends on the river’s natural seasonal flood cycle. Dams reduce seasonal flooding and cut off fish migration. Scenarios produced by the Mekong River Commission estimate that annual fish catches will drop 70% if all dams are built. This will severely disrupt regional food security.

The Opportunity: Renewable Energy Transition and Regional Energy Trade

Shifts in the global energy landscape provide opportunities to change the project map in the Mekong. Technological advances and rapid price drops for renewable energy mean that solar and wind are becoming economically feasible alternatives to hydropower and coal.

Project costs have dropped approximately 80% since 2009 for solar and approximately 65% for wind. These technologies are now cost competitive with fossil fuels.

The Mekong region is home to significant solar and wind potential, and investor interest in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam has skyrocketed in 2016 and 2017.

There is still time to change the future energy mix of the Mekong by replacing some of the most damaging hydropower projects with solar, wind, or biomass projects.

Vietnam can encourage investment in non-hydropower renewables in Cambodia and Laos and purchase power from its neighbors. This will give Vietnam market power to negotiate which dams get built, ensuring that the most damaging ones are no longer considered.

For this shift to work, decision makers need to see the basin as a single planning unit that meet regional energy demand through a diverse mix of energy sources, not just hydropower. By evaluating the costs and benefits of different water and energy development scenarios, decision makers can make the best choices.

Mekong Basin Connect builds a pathway to that future.

The Solution: Basin-wide Water and Energy Planning

In 2017, the Mekong Basin Connect team worked with the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam to host 12 capacity-building workshops to explore alternative development strategies. With additional support from the US Embassy in Hanoi and former ambassador Ted Osius, the team engaged directly with Vietnam’s National Assembly, Ministry of Industry and Trade, and Ministry of Planning and Investment, among other stakeholders, to build political will for these strategies.

In November and December 2017, our MBC team hosted a kick-off workshop in Phnom Penh with key ministries and then — with support from the US Consulate Public Affairs Office — hosted a series of workshops in Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho in southern Vietnam.

To tie up our 2017 efforts, we convened 54 government officials and other stakeholders from the CLV region (Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam) in Hanoi to explore practical ways to implement basin-wide planning.

MBC workshops share planning techniques that Mekong countries can use to pursue a more sustainable future: The Nature Conservancy’s Hydropower-by-Design framework and Energy Resources Group’s cost optimization model for energy expansion.

The Nature Conservancy's Hydropower-by-Design (HbD) framework is a quantitative, integrated, multi-criteria system-scale planning approach for river basin development. HbD compares alternative development scenarios and identifies those which most effectively balance energy development with the protection of other social and environmental values.

In Brazil’s Tapajos River Basin, HbD identified two scenarios which produced about the same amount of power, but Scenario 22 leaves more of the river’s connectivity and fish migration routes unaffected at only 5% greater cost.

To explore how HbD works, we lead workshop participants in a role-playing exercise exploring a real scenario in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy basin. Each representing a different interest group, participants compare the impacts from various hydropower portfolios on their sector. Using an online visualization tool that quantifies impacts to sectors such as resettlement, fisheries loss, or deforestation, participants negotiate tradeoffs and eventually reach consensus on a preferred portfolio.

Because the exercise identifies problems at the system-scale, it motivates participants to think of pragmatic and innovative ways to mitigate and optimize tradeoffs in a way that an analysis of individual projects does not. The exercise also delivers a more sophisticated understanding of how the hydropower sector interacts with other sectors.

MBC challenges workshop participants to envision a future with fewer dams and that meets regional energy demand through other energy sources. To visualize alternatives, we utilize Energy Resources Group’s (ERG) least-cost optimization model to provide a framework for policymakers to compare energy mix scenarios.

As a case study, ERG analyzed how Laos could build out its energy sector through 2030 using the cheapest forms of energy generation available. Results show that with the inclusion of solar, wind, and biomass, Laos can meet its energy consumption and export needs more than $2 billion cheaper than its current hydropower heavy, business-as-usual scenario.

Laos's 2015 power plan is over-reliant on 18 GW of hydropower and some coal.

Results from the UC Berkeley study show that with the inclusion of solar, wind, and biomass, Laos can meet its energy consumption and export needs more than $2 billion cheaper than its current hydropower heavy, business-as-usual scenario.

This low-cost scenario produces a diversified energy mix that is more resilient in the face of droughts and other shocks.

After exploring the Laos case study, workshop participants engage in a group exercise to determine a future energy mix for a hypothetical country. To simulate regional dynamics, groups can purchase power from neighbors to meet energy demand.

A workshop facilitator then works with the groups to see how energy market and environmental shocks impact their energy mix.

The exercise helps participants recognize the need for diverse and flexible energy planning. They also see the harm in path dependency and gain insight into how the choices made today can either limit opportunities or lead to greater ones further down the road

At the CLV workshop in Hanoi, we were honored with a keynote from Mekong River Commission CEO Pham Tuan Phan, who endorsed MBC's promotion of alternative scenario analysis as complementary to the MRC’s existing consideration of hydropower impacts. He emphasized that a basin-wide strategy is needed to address difficult trade-offs and to design more optimal and sustainable hydropower development pathways. The MRC plans to include the exploration of alternative energy development pathways in its upcoming Basin Development Plan 3.

At the CLV conference, private sector representatives discussed opportunities for expanding renewables investment in the CLV region.

General Electric and Convalt Energy detailed their plans for deepened renewable investment.

Mekong Strategic Partners and Bay Global Strategies highlighted simple policy changes that could kickstart major investments in renewables.

USAID’s Clean Power Asia team provided an update on the progress of its six-year project to pave the way for robust renewable deployment in ASEAN.

2017 set the stage for a more ambitious rollout of activities in 2018. We are preparing for the CLV Summit in Hanoi in late March, followed by the Mekong River Commission Summit in Siem Reap in early April. In the first half of 2018, the team will respond to interest expressed by attendees in further training and in expanding our workshop audience by more deeply engaging in Cambodia and Laos.


1. Build cross-cutting mechanisms within and between Mekong governments to promote policy pathways and better coordinate water-energy strategies

2. Implement strategic, system-scale water-energy scenario planning for the Mekong basin that emphasizes the efficiency gains of non-hydropower renewable energy and cross-border power trade

3. Link renewable energy and transmission investment capital with emerging trends

4. Achieve overall reduction of basin-wide environmental, social, and political risks

Mekong Basin Connect 2017 activities were supported by the above foundations and institutions.

For more information about Mekong Basin Connect, contact Stimson Energy, Water, and Sustainability Director Brian Eyler at beyler@stimson.org.

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