Mekong: A River, its people and Big Dams

posted by Michael Victor, CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food (
December 18, 2012

Dam building is a complicated and messy business. The Mekong region exemplifies the contradictions, problems and concerns that different groups hold. More than 140 dams are planned for the lower Mekong Basin and many are being built quickly as investment pours in.

On the one hand, there are the pro-hydropower advocates who propose that this development is the way for countries like Laos and Cambodia to move out of poverty and supply the growing energy demands of Southeast Asia. On the other, there are those who are extremely vocal about the social and environmental costs such massive dam building could cause. There is concern that any benefits derived from hydropower will not reach those who are most affected by the dams, as governance and compensation mechanisms are incredibly weak in all lower Mekong countries, particularly Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.

Unfortunately the debate has become too polarized for either side to work together for practical solutions. Likewise, many of the countries involved are emerging from years of isolation; constructive debates and information are not always accessible to citizens in formats and languages they can understand.

With this in mind, we started to look for different ways to engage different sides and push dialogue forward.  The CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food, IUCN’s Mekong Water Dialogues project and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) tasked Douglas Varchol, a recognized director and producer, to examine regional dam building in a balanced way.

The final product, filmed in four countries and narrated and subtitled in five languages (English, Khmer, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese), includes footage of China’s Mekong [Lancang] dams, as well as on-site footage of the controversial Xayaburi Dam in Laos.

The film is neither pro- nor anti-dam. While it shows that the fish ladder installed at the Pak Mun dam in Thailand has been completely ineffective, it also highlights National University of Lao experts working on how to construct an effective fish ladder system for Mekong species, an initiative that will take years of research to perfect a design. The innovative fish pass design on the Xayaburi (comprising three possible routes for fish to follow) is untested, but may work and set a standard for other dams built in the basin.

The film also explores issues around resettlement and relocation. In central Laos, dam builders at the Namtheun Hinboun Dam expansion project site have been commended for their innovative approach to relocation and support to those who have been affected by dam construction. Such a positive example is juxtaposed with a less clear picture in the lower Sesan in Cambodia, where villagers have been told a massive dam will be built, but have had little access to information on the dam construction, compensation schemes or what will happen to them. 

Beyond just producing the film, we initiated an innovative rollout strategy, teaming up with the Goethe Institute Southeast Asian Film festival in Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. More than 2,000 students attended the screenings in these countries. At the end of film screening, one Cambodian student, Miss Sous Srey Mom said, ”I am interested in this film because it makes me clear of the Mekong river issues.”

The response to the film demonstrates the value of tackling the sensitive issues surrounding hydropower development in a constructive manner. By giving Mekong citizens access to more information, it allows more people to participate in the debate, which then becomes a less ‘sensitive’ issue. It is only through these informed conversations that sustainable hydropower development can occur.

 “I have never seen a movie that presents a fairly balanced perspective [on the Mekong issues] but this one comes close”– Mr. Viraphohn Viravong, Vice Minister of Energy and Mines, Lao PDR

If you would like to view or learn more about the film go to

Watch short excerpts from the film: A River and its Dams and Life on the Lower Sesan

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December 18, 2012  
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