Mekong River Development

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At 4,800 kilometers, the Mekong River flows through six countries in the heart of Southeast Asia, for 234 kilometers forming the border between Burma’s Shan State and Laos. Over 60 million people depend on the Mekong and its tributaries for food, water, transportation and many other aspects of their daily lives. The river also supports one of the world’s most diverse fisheries, second only to Brazil's Amazon River.

In the past fifteen years the Mekong has undergone dramatic changes due to two main development programs. First, China has begun building a series of large dams on the mainstream of the river. Second, a navigation improvement project has removed a series of reefs and rapids, making it possible for vessels of up to 500 tons to travel the river.

Mekong Dams
China plans to build eight large dams on the upper Mekong and plans are being revived for dams on the lower mainstream Mekong. For detailed information see

Navigation Improvement Project
Plans for the Mekong navigation improvement project were conceived in the early 1990s, and finalized and approved by the governments of Burma, China, Laos and Thailand in early 2002. Under natural conditions, the waterway is navigable throughout the year for vessels of 60 tons only. The aim of the project is to enable larger shipping vessels to travel along the Mekong River between southern Yunnan province and Luang Prabang in Laos, removing major rapids and reefs in order for vessels of up to 500 tons to navigate the river for most of the year. 

The project is divided into three phases: the first phase (2002-2004) removed 11 major rapids and 10 scattered reefs, mostly along the Burma-Lao stretch of the river. Under the second phase, it is planned to remove an additional 51 rapids and shoals and in the third phase, the waterway is to be further canalized.

Investors Involved
The Upper Mekong Navigation Improvement Project is funded by the Chinese government. The project is part of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) Economic Cooperation Program, which was initiated and funded by the Asian Development Bank. Several state-run and private Chinese companies are involved in the construction of the Upper Mekong dams.

Benefits – where do they go?
Electricity from the upstream dams is for Southwest China and Thailand. The Navigation Improvement Project mainly benefits large vessels carrying goods from China to downstream markets.

Project Status - Last updated September 2008
China has so far completed three large dams across the upper Mekong: the 1,500 MW Manwan in 1993, the 1,350 MW Dachaoshan in 2002 and the 1,750 MW Jinghong in June of 2008. The fourth dam, the 4,200 MW Xiaowan, is still under construction and expected to come into operation in 2012.

The first phase of the Navigation Project was completed in 2004. There have been no reports since June 2004 of activity on the Burma stretch of the river. Today, 300-ton cargo vessels are able to navigate the river. 

Impacts on Eastern Shan State communities
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The dynamiting of reefs began in March 2002 and proceeded with minimal warning to nearby villagers who were told merely to “stay away from the river.” Restricted access during the blasting impacted fishing and local transport. Approximately 1,000 Burma Army troops from ten military battalions were sent to patrol along the river from January-April 2003. Two incidents of rape by these troops were reported and porters were forcibly conscripted during that time.

Smaller boats, a major source of transportation along this stretch of the river, now find it too dangerous to ride in the wake of waves from huge vessels and in currents that are much stronger than before. Several capsizings and boating accidents, including the destruction of cargo vessels that hit rocks, have occurred since the first-phase blasting was finished.

The increase in number of large boats and trade along the river has also benefited the trade in illegal goods, including wildlife and logs. Drugs and human trafficking are also aided by the increased navigation in this lawless region.

Erosion of the river’s banks in eastern Shan State and Thailand has increased rapidly in recent years, in some cases several meters washing away. This could be due to the navigation scheme or the dams. When water is released from a reservoir it is said to be “hungry”: it will recapture its sediment load by eroding the downstream bed and banks.

Villagers in eastern Shan State have reported unprecedented and sudden water surges on the river in the past few years, even during the dry season. This could be due to water releases at upstream dam sites but villagers have no idea because they are not informed of such releases. Low water levels downstream have exacerbated drought conditions during reservoir-filling upstream. In August 2008, river levels hit a 30-year high and flood waters inundated over 2,000 villages in Thailand and the two major cities of Laos. Thai officials are requesting information about sluice-gate management from the Chinese to increase understanding of such floods.

For more information see Aftershocks and Undercurrents
For updated news and information on the Mekong please visit

Voices of the Dammed

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