China in the Mekong: building dams for whose benefit?

A new policy brief from the Oxford University Global Economic Governance Programme discusses the controversies of Chinese investment in hydropower in the Mekong. It calls for action by governments and Chinese hydropower companies to ensure responsible water governance and safeguard livelihoods and biodiversity in the basin.

China is a “hydro-superpower”. How it harnesses the resources and energy potential of the international rivers flowing through its territory can have a significant – and at times, irreparable – impact not only on the complex ecosystems sustained by these rivers, but also on local communities both within and downstream of its borders. In mainland Southeast Asia, Chinese-led hydropower schemes are transforming the region’s landscapes and waterscapes. Designed to meet growing Chinese and regional power demands, these dams often become a “necessary evil”: necessary to national and regional development, but harmful to important rivers like the Mekong, Irrawaddy and Sesan, and the livelihoods that are tied to their natural ebbs and flows.

The policy brief make the following recommendations:

The Chinese government must enforce its domestic regulations for investments overseas and encourage Chinese firms to comply with indsutry standards.
Chinese hydropower companies must mainstream social and environmental impact assessments in the early stages of project development and engage directly with affected communites.
Governments in the Mekong basin should institutionalise participatory mechanisms in formal decision-making and provide public access to information on project development.

The policy brief is written by Dr Pichamon Yeophantong, Global Leaders Fellow currently based in the Niehaus Center for Globalization and Governance, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University.

Lake Turkana under threat from hydropower dam and irrigation development

Lake Turkana in the Kenyan Rift valley is the world’s largest desert lake but could shrink dramatically due to a hydropower dam being built upstream and plans for large-scale irrigation. This could be another Aral Sea disaster, says a new Oxford University study

The Gibe III hydropower dam is currently under construction on the Omo River which supplies 90 per cent of Lake Turkana’s water. Due for completion in 2014, the dam will permanently alter the flow of the river which will have devastating impacts on floodplain ecology, the productivity of the Lake’s fisheries and the livelihoods of the local population.

By regulating the flow of the river, the dam will also enable massive irrigation schemes in the Lower Omo. Irrigation development being planned by Ethiopia could abstract up to 50 per cent of the river’s inflow into Lake Turkana. The research shows that this could cause the lake to drop from 30 metres to under 10 metres in depth, being reduced to two small lakes.

This study, written by Dr Sean Avery for Oxford University’s African Studies Centre, is one of the outcomes of the AHRC-funded project, ‘Landscape people and parks: environmental change in the Lower Omo Valley, southwestern Ethiopia’, run by Oxford’s Professor David Anderson and Dr David Turton between 2007 and 2010.

View the illustrated booklet ‘What Future for Lake Turkana?’

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Scientists find vast new freshwater sources under the sea

Untapped reserves of fresh groundwater – up to 0.5 million km3 – are buried beneath continental shelves around the world, according to new findings published in the international scientific journal Nature,

The research was led by Vincent Post (Flinders University, Australia) and co-authored by Mike Edmunds (Oxford), Jacobus Groen and Henk Kooi (Amsterdam), Mark Person (New Mexico), and Shemin Ge (Colorado).

These reserves were formed during the glacial periods over thousands of years when on average the sea level was much lower than it is today, and when the coastline was further out, rainwater would infiltrate into the ground and fill up the water table in areas that are nowadays under the sea. When the sea level rose due to the melting ice caps some 9000 years ago these areas were covered by the ocean. Many aquifers were – and are still – protected from seawater by overlying layers of clay and sediment.

This is good news since this water is accessible to many of the world’s burgeoning coastal cities suffering from water stress. But, it should be stressed, these waters are non-renewable and would need to be ‘mined’. Yet, the reserves are estimated at 100 times the amount we have already extracted from the earth’s subsurface.

In Europe freshwater has been found at and beyond the English Channel and North Sea coasts of the UK and the Netherlands, areas that were exposed as land masses for much of the past 80 000 years. Other areas with considerable offshore reserves include North America, China, Indonesia, Australia and South Africa.

There are two ways to access this water – through platforms out at sea or by drilling from the mainland or islands close to the aquifers. While offshore drilling can be very costly, this method should be assessed and considered in terms of cost, sustainability and environmental impact against other water sources such as desalination, or even building large new dams on land.

But while nations may now have new reserves of freshwater offshore, they will need to take care to not contaminate it. Boreholes drilled into the aquifers for oil and gas exploration or production, or targeted for carbon dioxide disposal can threaten the quality of the water.

The study “Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenon” by Vincent E.A. Post, Jacobus Groen, Henk Kooi, Mark Person, Shemin Ge and W. Mike Edmunds is published in the latest issue of Nature.


Post, V.E.A., Groen, J., Kooi, H., Person, M., Ge, S. and Edmunds, W.M. (2013) Offshore fresh groundwater reserves as a global phenomenonNature, 504: 71-78