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Lancang (Mekong) River - Heart and Soul of Southeast Asia

Lancang River

Lancang River
Credit: Yaoling Niu
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The Mekong River, known as the Lancang in China, is the heart and soul of mainland Southeast Asia. Over 60 million people depend on the river and its tributaries for food, water, transport and many other aspects of their daily lives. The river supports one of the world’s most diverse fisheries, second only to Brazil’s Amazon River.

China’s construction of dams and a navigation channel along the upper reaches of the Mekong threatens this complex ecosystem. Development of an 8-dam cascade (see map) is already well underway, with two dams completed and three currently under construction. The scheme will drastically change the river’s natural flood-drought cycle and block the transport of sediment, affecting downstream ecosystems and the livelihoods of millions living downstream in Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Impacts to water levels and fisheries have already been recorded along the Thai-Lao border.

Despite this, construction has proceeded without consultation with China’s downstream neighbors and without an assessment of the dams’ likely impacts on the river and its people. What’s more, there are likely to be more dams built even farther upstream, near the Three Parallel Rivers World Heritage Site. A Xinhua media outlet reported in July 2004 that pre-feasibility studies have begun for a 7-dam cascade proposed farther upstream.

Within China, communities resettled by the Manwan and Dachaoshan dams have suffered from lack of adequate compensation, problems with food security and increased incidence of disease. While steps have been taken to fix these problems, much more must be done to ensure that people’s livelihoods are restored.

The government-run China Development Bank is expected to provide the majority of funding for the Upper Mekong dams. The leading developer is Yunnan Huaneng Lancangjiang Hydropower Company Ltd, a subsidiary of one of China’s largest independent power producers, Huaneng Power International.


In Life on the Mekong, China’s Dams Dominate
New York Times article on the impacts of China’s Upper Mekong dams on people living downstream along the Mekong River. By Jane Perlez.
Downstream Impacts of Hydropower and Development of an International River: A Case Study of Lancang-Mekong
Southeast Asia Rivers Network briefing paper.
Lancang-Mekong: A River of Controversy
Booklet on downstream impacts of hydropower and navigation development along the Upper Mekong River. By Mekong Watch, SEARIN and IRN.
China’s Upper Mekong Dams Endanger Millions Downstream
IRN Briefing Paper.
Upper Mekong Navigation Project Threatens Livelihoods, Ecosystem
IRN Briefing Paper.

latest additions

Powershed Politics: Yunnan Hydropower Under Great Western Development
By Darrin Magee. Issue 185, pp. 23-41, The China Quarterly, 2006.
Additional Information

Aviva Imhof, Campaigns Director

International Rivers Network


Phone: +1 510-848-1155