Navigating the Nexus

Hydropower developments create food and water trade-offs that are not well understood.

The challenge – Policy choices for society and environmental needs

The Mekong River Basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world and home to some 60 million people who rely on the river system’s abundant resources for healthy, affordable nutrition and earning their living. The health of this system is crucial to their future security, and to the economic development of the six countries that share the Mekong region: Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, China and Myanmar. With so much at stake, decisions about how best to manage the region’s natural resources and develop its economies need to be carefully made and evidence-driven.

Economic growth, social equity, and national security influence policy decisions and are dependent on healthy ecosystems. Yet ecosystem health and the issues that policy decision-makers care most about, are rarely clearly connected. The result is that choices are often made without effective consideration of environmental consequences and ultimately can undermine progress towards achieving society’s goals.

By 2030, eighty-eight dams will be built in the Mekong River System. Our research suggests this scale of development could result in a 23-38% net loss in fish protein for local and international consumers of Mekong fish (Orr et al. 2012).

The response – Analysing what impacts hydropower can have on food production in the Mekong River Basin

Navigating the Nexus will address trade-offs within the food-energy-water nexus in the context of hydropower development in the Mekong River Basin by providing empirical information regarding the impacts of hydropower development on food production and security. We aim to support policy-makers to advance economic goals without undermining human well-being in the Mekong river basin.
Project goal
By 2018, economic and land use decision-making in the Mekong river basin integrates information on biodiversity and food-water-energy security.

  • Objective 1: By December 2015, regional estimates and detailed case studies of land, water and trade implications of planned dam developments are developed are produced in consultation with key decision-makers in the Mekong, published in peer reviewed international journals and influencing policy dialogue in the Mekong region.
  • Objective 2: By August 2016, national and multilateral governance institutions in the Mekong region will be enhanced to better integrate decision-making on biodiversity, energy, food, greenhouse gas emissions, land, trade and water for sustainable development.

The Engagement – bringing together science and policy on dams and food in the Greater Mekong

Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow, Kien van Nguyen with the Australian National University are leading the scientific research to develop a shared understanding of risks and trade-offs for the current development trajectory of the river basin. They are working closely with WWF-International, WWF-Greater Mekong and the Luc Hoffmann Institute LIVES research project to apply and share research findings. Together, we are:

  • Developing system models to provide the best possible evidence on the interrelationship between food, water and energy in the Mekong region at regional scale;
  • Conducting field research through three participatory case studies in Lower Mekong Countries of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – those anticipated to be most impacted if the full scale of hydropower development goes ahead in the basin- to examine the possible socio-economic and food supply outcomes, including sources, nutrition quality and livelihoods;
  • Engaging in regional training programmes, policy forums, international and regional academic conferences to communicate research findings with decision makers, bilateral organizations and scientific communities in the Mekong Region.

Research outputs

We will produce a series of publications, policy summaries and reports working with stakeholders addressing the following:

  • Land, water and trade impacts of the livestock, fish and crop options for replacing food supplies lost due to planned dam developments are estimated and published;
  • Physical and socio-economic changes in food supplies and nutrition following the construction of dikes in An Giang to support decision-making;
    Greenhouse gas emission implications of options for replacing food supplies lost due to planned dam developments;
  • Implications of additional livestock feed imports or directly importing replacement foods on the environment of exporting nations, trade for importing countries, and food security in Asia.

We are exploring the option to add two further case studies to this research series:

  • Understanding the impacts of alternative irrigated agricultural systems In Cambodia with respect to agricultural production, biodiversity, land, water and livelihoods;
  • Food security change at the local community level before and after displacement by a dam project.

The Impact – Enabling food-energy-water policy coherency in the Mekong river basin

The research in Navigating the Nexus is improving capacity for decision making on food-water-energy around change of land use, shifting from flood recession agriculture into irrigated agriculture and dam construction by:

  • Generating a transferable methodology for scenario-based modelling of the food-energy-water nexus at regional scale in river basins;
  • Contributing towards developing actionable indicators about trade-offs between dam development and protein losses and replacement of losses;
  • Integrating research into land use change and infrastructure development in the Lower Mekong countries.

Project Partners

WWF International, WWF-Greater Mekong, WWF-Vietnam, WWF-Cambodia, An Giang University, Vietnam, Royal University of Phnom Penh and Royal University of Agriculture (Cambodia), Conservation International.


Orr, S., Pittock, J., Chapagain, A., & Dumaresq, D. (2012). Dams on the Mekong River: Lost fish protein and the implications for land and water resources. Global Environmental Change: Human and Policy Dimensions, 22(4), 925–932.

Project Leadership

Associate Professor James Pittock, Fenner School of Environment and Society, Australian National University; Mr Stuart Orr, Head of Water Stewardship, WWF International; Dr Kien Van Nguyen, Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow at the Australian National University; and Dr Louise Gallagher, Research Lead, Luc Hoffmann Institute.

High dikes in An Giang province, Mekong Delta, Vietnam. Photo: Kien van Nguyen

Participatory research with local authorities in An Giang province, Vietnam. Photo: Kien van Nguyen.

“Joining the Luc Hoffmann Fellowship programme gives me an important opportunity to contribute to future sustainable development of the Mekong region through leading research on water, food and energy connections in places where upstream dam development and climate change are increasing pressure”

Dr Kien van Nguyen, Luc Hoffmann Institute Fellow at the Australian National University.

WWF Living Planet Report 2014.

Main image: An aerial view of the Mekong Delta in Southern Vietnam. Photo © Elizabeth Kemp / WWF

Chris JohnsonNavigating the Nexus