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Environmental flows

Through the Water Utilization Project (WUP) funded by the World Bank the MRC has developed a hydrological model which allows predictions to be made of the hydrological consequences of proposed developments such as hydropower dams, irrigation projects and changes in catchment land use. The hydrological model will allow prediction of the changes at various points downstream for hydrological characteristics such as size of various floods (e.g. the one in five year flood, the one in fifty year flood) and dry season flows, rate of change in flows, timing of flood and drought peaks, area inundated and so on.

This project, funded by the Netherlands Government, will allow us to determine the consequences of these flow changes for ecosystems, fisheries and livelihoods. It will allow us to answer the question : if the fifty year return period flood is 20% smaller as a result of the operation of a particular dam, so what?

The project will be carried out by a team of experts from the four member countries, working with international mentors. The team will encompass experts in disciplines such as fish ecology, plant ecology, social science, aquatic invertebrate ecology, hydraulic modeling and so on. They will work as a group ensuring that the data collected by each expert group is compatible with the data collected by others.

The analysis will be based on data collected from field surveys at a number of sites selected within the basin. Sites will be selected to ensure that a range of hydrological, hydraulic and ecological conditions are included, and both wet and dry season conditions must be understood. Existing knowledge and expertise will also be used, but this is limited for the Mekong basin.

The output of the studies will be a series of scenarios indicating the likely consequences of various interventions. Environmental decisions always require tradeoffs, this project will provide tools so that governments are aware of the tradeoffs they are making, and can test the consequences of different management options. Often the locations of dams and the way in which they are operated can have a large influence on their downstream impacts.

Studies of this type have been conducted many times in other parts of the world, but never on a river of the size of the Mekong. The results obtained will therefore be of great interest to other large river basins around the world. The approach of using local experts with international mentors is also unique, and is intended to build capacity in the region at the same time as accomplishing project objectives.