CHIANG RAI – Researchers backed by multi-million-dollar grants from NASA are heading to Southeast Asia’s Mekong River region to find ways to improve dams so they are less harmful to people and the environment.
Researchers from Michigan State University (MSU) will spend three years analysing sites in the lower Mekong River basin in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The project will be funded by two grants from the US space agency, Nasa, totalling $3 million, and the researchers hope their findings will improve dams around the world.
“The most egregious affects of dam building are displacement and relocation,” said Daniel Kramer, a professor of fisheries and wildlife at MSU.
“But the research that we’re doing is also suggesting that there are a lot of less obvious things that the effects of dams bring on local people and ecosystems,” Mr Kramer told Reuters.
There are concerns, for example, about damage to farming and fisheries due to dam projects along the lower Mekong, which is the world’s largest freshwater fishery and home to 60 million people.
The environmental impact of dams may drastically change the economies and social structures of communities, Mr Kramer added.
Dam building is experiencing a resurgence around the world – with many projects backed by Chinese funding — as more countries look for affordable ways to generate energy for their growing populations.
Most Mekong countries, especially China, have been planning and building hydropower dams since the late 1980s but an uptick in dam projects began about 15 years ago.
The Mekong River’s mainstream now has about 11 dams and more than 100 on its tributaries, said Jiaguo Qi, professor of geography at MSU.
The MSU researchers will analyse how dams impact the flow of rivers, local agriculture, fisheries, irrigations systems and wetland ecosystems, said Mr Qi.
As well as analysing satellite imagery, researchers will develop models to simulate historical water flows and project how those flows may change as a result of dam construction and shrinking glaciers in the Himalayan headwaters.
Interviews will also be conducted with local residents to find out how communities that surround or are downstream from dams cope with the loss of wetlands and fisheries, and what the economic benefits are.
The research team will regularly produce papers and hold workshops throughout the three-year period, with the final report available to the general public.
It is hoped that the research will be used to make existing dams and those still in the planning stage, to become more sustainable, Mr Qi added.
While some preliminary research has already begun, the field work for the project will begin in May, he added.