The political ecology of large hydropower dams in the Mekong Basin: A comprehensive review

Carl Middleton
Center of Excellence on Resource Politics for Social Development, Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok, Thailand; carl.m@chula.ac.th

ABSTRACT: Since the early 1990s, the Mekong basin has been transformed from a largely free-flowing basin to one that is increasingly impounded by large hydropower dams, impacting river hydrology, ecology, riparian livelihoods, and water governance. This comprehensive review organises and assesses political ecology literature on large dams in the basin. Following a conceptual scoping of the political ecology of large dams, the review covers: the biophysical impacts of hydropower in the Mekong basin and how the scientific studies that research them relate to political ecology literature; relational hydrosocial approaches, including hydrosocial ordering and networked political ecologies; the ontological multiplicity of the Mekong(s) and associated ontological politics; the political economy of large dams in the Mekong basin and its relationship to transboundary water governance and hydropolitics; the discourses and knowledge production about large dams, including those regarding water data politics, 'international best practices', impact assessments, and public participation; and livelihoods, the commons, and water justice. The review details how some large hydropower dams in the Mekong basin have taken on global salience, including the Pak Mun dam, the Nam Theun 2 dam, and the Xayaburi dam. The review argues that political ecology research has revealed the fundamentally political character of large dams’ planning, construction, operation, ownership, and financing and has significantly widened the scope of how large hydropower dams are understood and acted upon, especially by those challenging their realisation. This includes how large hydropower dams’ political processes and outcomes are shaped by asymmetrical power relations with consequences for social and ecological justice. Recognising that a substantial portion of political ecology research to date has been conducted as extensive plans for large dams were being materialised and contested, the review concludes by outlining future priority research areas that cover existing gaps and posing new questions that are arising as the river basin becomes progressively more impounded.

KEYWORDS: Political ecology of large hydropower dams, hydrosocial ordering, critical hydropolitics, commons, water justice, Mekong-Lancang River