Observed river discharge changes due to hydropower operations in the Upper Mekong Basin

Timo A. Räsänen*, Paradis Someth, Hannu Lauri, Jorma Koponen, Juha Sarkkula, Matti Kummu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

78 Citations (Scopus)


The Upper Mekong Basin is undergoing extensive hydropower development and its largest dams have recently become operational. Hydropower is built to improve the regional energy supply, but at the same time, it has considerable transboundary impacts on downstream discharge regime and further on aquatic ecosystems, riparian livelihoods and food security. Despite the transboundary significance of the impacts, there is no public information on the hydropower operations or on the already observed downstream discharge impacts since the completion of the largest dams. Therefore, in this study we assess the discharge changes using observed river discharge data and a distributed hydrological model over the period of 1960–2014. Our findings indicate that the hydropower operations have considerably modified the river discharges since 2011 and the largest changes were observed in 2014. According to observed and simulated discharges, the most notable changes occurred in northern Thailand (Chiang Saen) in March-May 2014 when the discharge increased by 121–187% and in July-August 2014 when the discharge decreased by 32–46% compared to average discharges. The respective changes in Cambodia (Kratie) were 41–74% increase in March-May 2014 and 0–6% decrease in July-August 2014 discharges. The earlier model-based predictions of the discharge changes are well in line with the observed changes, although observed changes are partly larger. The discharge impacts are expected to vary from year to year depending on hydropower operations. Altogether, the results highlight the need for strong transboundary cooperation for managing the downstream impacts.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)28-41
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Hydrology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2017
MoE publication typeA1 Journal article-refereed


  • Discharge
  • Flood pulse
  • Hydrological modelling
  • Hydropower
  • Mekong River
  • Transboundary

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