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Development conflicts and the water-energy nexus in the Mekong River basin

Oliver Hensengerth
Northumbria University

Naho Mirumachi
King’s College London

Joakim Öjendal
University of Gothenburg


The emergence of the concept of the water-energy nexus has put into focus the need for in-tandem management of water and energy. Nexus however is often understood in input-output terms and lacks attention to the environmental and social impact of energy production. While governments and development banks justify large hydropower plants in terms of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions and macroeconomic development, the effects on local communities and ecosystems are taken as necessary byproducts of development. This produces scalar tradeoffs between global goals of mitigating climate change, national goals of economic development, and local goals of protecting communities and ecosystems.

The hydropower boom in the Mekong River Basin has resulted in such scalar conflicts. The boom is driven by the Asian Development Bank, regional companies and financiers – both private and public – and national energy bureaucracies. Against this, increasingly dense networks of local NGOs and a rising number of local protests – as seen, for instance, at Myitsone, Lower Sesan 2, and Xayaburi – have started to question the justification and processes of hydropower projects. The session explores the different ways in which the struggle over the development path of Mekong countries can be understood, drawing on perspectives from political science, human geography, international development, and political economy. Empirically the papers will address local power conflicts during resettlement (Suhardiman’s paper), conflicts between water users and uses (Siciliano’s paper), the role of public participation to reconcile development conflicts (Mirumachi’s paper), and the connections between social justice and the water-energy nexus (Hensengerth’s paper).


Paper 1: From acronyms to action: Impact assessment for hydropower development in transboundary river basins

Dr Naho Mirumachi
King’s College London

As the World Commission on Dams acknowledged, building large dams is deeply controversial (WCD 2000). Dam building raises questions about the costs and benefits for irrigation, hydropower, flood prevention and climate change adaptation. The impacts to local livelihoods, welfare and wellbeing of those affected by dam resettlement, and long and short-term changes to ecosystems also become points of contention. Many national governments have made Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) a required process to plan and implement dam projects. Other impact assessment methods such as Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA), transboundary environmental impact assessment (TEIA) and Cumulative Impact Assessment (CIA) have also been developed and applied. While impact assessment may be embedded into national policy and legal institutions, transboundary implications challenge the consideration of cost, risk and benefit. The paper exemplifies the role of different kinds of science and techniques used in the assessment of environmental and socio-economic impact from hydropower development. By reflecting on the recent dam developments in the Mekong, in particular on the mainstream, this paper argues that impact assessment needs to be positioned as inherently part of the decision-making process to not only tables options for energy development but also broader economic development pathways. Public participatory processes can be further strengthened by feeding into and drawing on the iterative nature of the relationship between SEA, CIA, TEIA and EIA.


Paper 2: The rise of community protests: Social justice, hydropower, and the water-energy nexus

Oliver Hensengerth
Northumbria University

Local protests against hydropower dams are rising across Mekong basin countries as local communities are becoming increasingly aware of the negative impacts of hydropower dams, informed by NGOs, researchers and fellow communities. All Mekong countries have environmental assessment procedures, but the failure to implement them by taking the concerns of local communities seriously has resulted in tradeoffs between development goals on global, national and local levels that have their root causes in national development policies driven by energy bureaucracies. The neglect of local community concerns has caused the development of alternative development discourses, and alongside this attempts of communities and NGOs to connect with each other to form networks of protest and alter-globalization discourses. The result is a region that is fragmented between discourses of macro-economic development and discourses of social justice. The paper examines the cause of these discourses and the extent to which they are compatible or mutually exclusive by examining the relationship between social justice and the water-energy nexus. Empirically the focus falls on hydropower projects in Cambodia, Myanmar and Laos.
Paper 3: When local power meets hydropower: Reconceptualizing resettlement along the Nam Gnouang River in Laos

Dr Diana Suhardiman
International Water Management Institute, Southeast Asia Regional Office

In Laos, hydropower development is occurring at rapid, though controversial pace. While hydropower development could in principle contribute to the country’s development objectives to promote economic growth and reduce poverty, it also impacts people’s livelihoods especially local communities living along the river. Framing the transition of Nam Gnouang River into a reservoir, this article focuses on the process of resettlement of four neighboring villages in Bolikhamxai Province, Laos into one resettlement site, Ban Keosengkham. Conceptualizing hydropower development as a ‘technology’ of power, it illustrates how power relations between villagers, local government authorities, and dam developers shape and reshape resettlement processes and outcomes.


Paper 4: Hydropower development and resource allocation between competing users and uses: Evidence from large dams in Cambodia

Giuseppina Siciliano
School of Oriental and African Studies

Hydropower development is a key energy priority in Cambodia as a means to increase energy access and promote national development. Nevertheless hydropower dams can also negatively impact people’s livelihoods by reducing access to local natural resources such as land, water and food. Based on Kamchay dam in Cambodia this paper analyses local resource use competition between different uses (food, energy, livelihoods) and users (villagers, urban settlers, local government and dam builders). It illustrates how divergence between national priorities and local needs can result in the unequal distribution of costs and benefits between the national and local scales, as well as rural and urban areas.