Mapping dams, mapping dreams

There is something inherently fascinating about maps. They invite the eye to roam free and resonate perhaps with our ancient hunter-gatherer instincts. Maps tell stories of what was and what could be. They can represent the world around us in ways we never imagined so that something as prosaic as which way the wind blows becomes a view into an alternate universe. Maps can make subway routes a work of art and reveal relationships we never knew existed.

Clip from "Dams in the Mekong Basin" that shows every known commissioned, under construction, and planned dam in the basin.

In the Mekong, dreams revolve around hydropower development. Everyone has a point of view, some for, some against, but here is one view that everyone can more or less agree on. Several years in the making, the CGIAR Challenge Program on Water and Food has what is—for the time being at least—the most accurate map of dams in the Mekong.

It's a crowded picture. This is in part because the map includes planned and under construction dams and not just hydropower dams but reservoirs for water supply and irrigation. Figures vary depending on who you ask and the numbers are subject to change, but the general estimates are: a cascade of eight mainstream dams on the Lancang, with five currently in operation and another 20 planned or under construction on Lancang tributaries. On the Mekong south of the China border: 30 in operation with another 134 on the drawing boards. The numbers are impressive or frightening, depending on your politics, but numbers alone don’t show the whole picture. For that, a map is useful.

The CPWF Hydropower Map tells a story, represents a dream and, like many maps do, raises questions. Is there anywhere else on the planet with such a density of dams? Is it economically possible to build all those dams? In such a crowded landscape, how does one dam affect the operation of another? Will the Mekong Basin become a Garden of Lakes and how would that affect things like food security and where people live and what they do for work?

One of the benefits is that when people are asking questions like this and pointing at a map, they are less inclined to point fingers at each other. Visually representing the numbers as a map externalizes issues that otherwise tend to descend into “duelling citation” debates that lead nowhere near the identification of real problems and potential solutions.

Necessity the mother of invention

One of the first things the project team did in the early days of the program was to look for a list of dams in the Mekong. What they found were bits and pieces of information scattered across of wide range of organizations. Thus began a long and laborious search and the origin of the map. Team members spent hours with Google Earth following rivers from mouth to source in search of dams.

When they were finally satisfied they had identified every dam they could, the team began thinking about mapping options. The map on the CPWF-Mekong website is presented using Google Fusion, which allows users to zoom in and out and annotate points with basic dam data.

Once posted, requests for PDF versions started rolling in. With Fusion, it’s not easy to produce a PDF file and because of scaling issues only portions of the map could be PDF-ed at any one time. To make it easier for users, the team turned for help to Vientiane based GeoSys, who created the spectacular maps you can now download from our website.

Help maintain the map

You can help update, maintain and expand the Hydropower Map by visiting the Mekong Basin Hydropower page on Wikipedia. If you don’t have a login, just click on ‘edit’ and Wikipedia will display the sign up screens. We would be especially interested in help with the precise locations of dams; accurately referenced technical data; identification of additional dams that we may have missed; inputs into the sections that consider the benefits (positive and negative) of dams; and anything else you feel might help us to develop a more complete picture of dam development in the Mekong. With your help, we can ensure the map is the always the most comprehensive and up to date map available.

Want one?

The map is posted here.  Comments on the web page, the map and the data are most welcome.

Following numerous requests for a downloadable version of the map, these are now available on our website in A4 and A3 sizes. We also have even larger sizes available (A0 and A1), but these are two large to upload. If you're interested in these sizes, please let us know. If you notice any errors in the data, or have new information to add, please contact us. The KML files associated with the map above are also available.

You can download variations of the map here:
A4: Dams in the Mekong Basin Map (4.9 MB)
A3: Dams in the Mekong Basin Map (8.4 MB)

For more information, contact: cpwf.mekong@gmail.com

The Mekong Hydropower Map initiative was generously funded by AusAID

AustralianAID

Comments

The organization I'm starting is built around using maps to improve decision making. A map, particularly a dynamic map, can bring in social, political, and physical information and make it digestible in ways that reports and papers just can't. If you present an engineer with a thorough, dynamic map, he can point out possible new build sites, and you can use the map to tell him about things like water quality conditions in the area, socioeconomic attributes, and how alterations to flow may impact transboundary water agreements. It's not to say that a map will automatically make decision-making easier, but it will definitely make the process more informed, and may help improve outcomes or mitigate adverse impacts.

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