Nearly 100 hydropower dams are planned for construction along tributaries off the Mekong River. The 2,700-mile river, one of the world’s largest, flows through Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia and serves as an economic engine for fishermen and a food source for millions of people. The dams will provide clean energy to the region, but could alter natural river patterns if not managed properly, adversely impacting food production, supply and business.

A solution proposed by an international team of researchers would allow dam operators to generate power in Fishing in Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Source: John Sabo/Arizona State UniversityFishing in Lake Tonle Sap, Cambodia. Source: John Sabo/Arizona State Universityways that also protect — and possibly improve — food supplies and businesses throughout the Mekong river basin.

“We have figured out the relationship between river flows and fish catch, and we have developed an algorithm for dam operators to use that will increase fish harvests and still generate power,” said Arizona State University Professor John Sabo. “Dams are going to be built no matter how much fuss we make, our research shows how we can be more strategic about the buildout and operations of these dams in the Mekong.”

The river floods annually in a cycle important for fisheries, but seasonal droughts must be recognized as equally important. Long droughts combined with short floods may create ideal conditions for terrestrial nutrients to be entrained into the freshwater system. An algorithm formulated by the researchers recommends long low-flow periods punctuated by pulses of flooding, which will allow dam operators to co-manage their power generation priorities while protecting livelihoods for fisheries downstream.

The analysis and proposed algorithm are published in Science Magazine.

In addition to Arizona State University researchers, scientists from the University of Washington, University of Maryland, Conservation International, the University of South Florida, the Mekong River Commission and Aalto University participated in this project.

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