Overview Article

Sustainability Science

, Volume 8, Issue 4, pp 565-584

First online:

Understanding the impact of hydropower developments in the context of upstream–downstream relations in the Mekong river basin

  • Claudia KuenzerAffiliated withGerman Earth Observation Centre, EOC, German Aerospace Centre, DLR Email author 
  • , Ian CampbellAffiliated withGHD AustraliaMonash University
  • , Marthe RochAffiliated withCentre for Geoinformatics, University of Salzburg
  • , Patrick LeinenkugelAffiliated withGerman Earth Observation Centre, EOC, German Aerospace Centre, DLR
  • , Vo Quoc TuanAffiliated withCollege of Environmental Sciences, Can Tho University
  • , Stefan DechAffiliated withGerman Earth Observation Centre, EOC, German Aerospace Centre, DLR

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Hydropower developments along the main stem of the Mekong River and its tributaries cause transboundary effects within the Mekong Basin Region, which comprises parts of six countries. On the one hand, the provision of hydropower triggers economic development and helps to meet the rising energy demand of the Mekong riparian countries, especially China, Thailand, and Vietnam. On the other hand, the negative impact of dam construction, mainly altered water flow and sediment load, has severe impacts on the environment and the livelihoods of the rural Mekong population. Several discrepancies exist in the needs, demands, and challenges of upstream versus downstream countries. Against the common apprehension that downstream countries are powerlessly exposed to mainly negative impacts whereas upstream countries unilaterally benefit from hydropower, the authors argue that upstream–downstream relations are not really clear-cut. This conclusion is based on a consideration of the complex power play between Mekong riparians, with a focus on recent power trade interactions. The article investigates the consequences of hydropower dams for the Mekong region as well as the role of supranational players, such as the Mekong River Commission and the Greater Mekong Subregion Initiative, on the hydropower debate. It is not nations that are the winners or losers in the hydropower schemes in the Mekong, but rather parts of the riparian population: a few influential and powerful elites versus the large mass of rural poor.


Mekong river basin Hydropower development Dams River ecology Mekong River Commission Greater Mekong Subregion Riparians Electricity trade Power grid