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.

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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.