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Linking Current and Future Hydrologic Change to Hydropower, Human Nutrition, and Livelihoods in the Lower Mekong Basin

This INFEWS project will identify and communicate science-based resource management constraints to sustain food-energy-water systems in the lower Mekong River Basin (MRB). The Mekong is one of the last major rivers to remain undammed for much of its length.

Primary Investigators:



This INFEWS project will identify and communicate science-based resource management constraints to sustain food-energy-water systems in the lower Mekong River Basin (MRB). The Mekong is one of the last major rivers to remain undammed for much of its length. The river’s strong natural flood pulse is driven by the South Asian Summer Monsoon and controls multiple ecosystem processes critical to livelihoods in the region. Yet, despite the dominant role floodplain ecosystems play in the region, there is little known in the MRB regarding climate, hydrology, ecological processes, resource users and governance. Annual flooding controls the fluxes of the key nutrients and contaminants that enhance or shrink the growth and productivity of fish and rice. In this way, the flood pulse is directly linked to human well-being. However, the river’s enormous discharge could also generate over 40 GW of power. This power is viewed as essential to stimulate the economic development of the region. It seems certain that future hydropower development and climate variability will impact the flood-pulse and the goods and services it provides in the MRB. To fill these knowledge gaps, this project(a partnership between Arizona State University and the University of Washington) will build analytical frameworks, collect critical field data, and construct new tools that advance the progress of science and that are also applicable for scenario analysis and planning as an aid to sustainable development and that will also promote the progress of science. Furthermore, food, energy and water security are core components of stability throughout the developing world, and this project will advance national security by providing science-based guidelines for stabilizing food-energy-water security tradeoffs in rapidly developing and growing regions of the world.

The South Mekong Livelihoods Project (SMLP) will provide a quantitative framework for predicting the effects of hydropower development and climate variability on the Mekong River Basin (MRB) and its flood-pulse, freshwater biodiversity, and both yields and nutritional quality of fish and rice, two key aspects of food security. The Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) macro-hydrology model will predict current and future streamflow and thereby serve as the foundation of the quantitative framework. VIC will be parameterized with new remote-sensing analyses predicting evapotranspiration as well as land-cover change from riparian forest to irrigated rice paddy. Climate simulations and future dam development and operations scenarios will be used as a forcing function for VIC, which will then drive a water-resources development model, a hydropower generation model, and a hydrodynamics model of the Tonle Sap Lake in the lower MRB. The project will link aspects of hydrology with food production in the Tonle Sap in two ways: 1) via multivariate autoregressive state-space analyses of new catch per unit effort data to quantify how timing, magnitude, and the decadal-scale sequence of the flood-pulse drives relative fish abundance and ecosystem processes; and 2) via a crop model (CropSyst) linked to VIC that generates rice yields from a physically based land-surface scheme. Dynamics of the flood-pulse are also likely to control food quality, specifically fluxes of key nutrients and harmful contaminants to people in fish and rice through its effect on redox biogeochemistry. The project will establish this relationship for the first time and incorporate both positive (nutritional) and negative (contaminants) effects of fish and rice into a single metric, thereby quantitatively linking the flood-pulse to human well-being. The research team will use metrics of food-system yield and quality to identify best management practices for dam development and operations using multi-objective optimization approaches that analyze tradeoffs between hydropower generation and food yield. Finally, the project will develop one of the first quantitative institutional analyses using a cooperative game-theoretic approaches to unearth best practices in creating international coalitions at multiple scales of governance. These system components will be integrated by measuring robustness of tradeoffs under climate extremes and given bargaining among institutions that might force local solutions to diverge from the global (basin) optima. The project will: 1) train three US-based postdoctoral researchers, six graduate students, multiple undergraduates, and at least two Cambodian students; 2) share critical data and models through broad stakeholder engagement within the Mekong; 3) develop a novel online curriculum that enhances STEM capacity in sustainability by engaging 20 fisheries managers in quantitative modeling and tradeoff analysis led by ASU’s EdPlus online learning program; and 4) improve scientific capacity in the region as MRB scientists develop and apply the project’s advanced modeling systems. Local scientists and students will be trained in both field and statistical methods so that the research can be sustained beyond the project’s duration.

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