College of Engineering News Room

Mauricio Arias' research on watershed sustainability could promote hydropower and food production in the Mekong Basin

Mauricio Arias, assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering, is part of a large collaborative research group that is working in the Lower Mekong River area on a plan that includes innovative ways to manage watersheds and dams to promote hydropower sustainability in the Mekong River Basin.

storm looms over mekong

The Mekong is one of the world's largest, flowing through Burma, China, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. It's an economic engine for fishermen and a food source for millions of people worldwide. And while the dams are expected to provide clean energy to the region, if not managed properly, they also have the potential to offset natural river patterns, which would damage food production, supply and business.

"This research is critical to millions of people that depend on fisheries from the Lower Mekong for their subsistence (more than 80% of the protein humans consume in Cambodia comes from fish)," said Arias.

This research came from a sub-team from the "Mekong Foodweb Modelling Group," a group of 20+ researchers established in 2011 by Conservation International and several universities in the US, New Zealand, Canada, and France to investigate the ecology and drivers behind what is believed to be the largest wild freshwater fishery in the planet.

"I am a founding member and one of the only two water resources engineers in the group," said Arias.

This research is also globally relevant and a scientific breakthrough because it switches the notion that we have about large dams and environmental flows, explained Arias. Historically, we have always assumed that the natural flow of rivers -without dams- provided the best conditions for fish, but in this research we demonstrate that historical fisheries yields could actually be increased if river flows were "designed" in such a way that key aspects of the hydrology during periods of high fish harvests were favored.

Overall, this could be a more realistic and optimistic view of what is going on with dams all over the developing world where hydropower will continues to contribute a vast majority of the electricity generation while affecting some of the most biologically diverse rivers on the planet.

mekong river

The solution proposed by researchers allows dam operators to generate power in ways that also protect – and possibly improve – food supplies and businesses throughout the Mekong river basin. The proposed solution, the first of its kind for this problem, can be applied to other large river systems around the world facing similar tradeoffs, appears in the December 8 issue of Science Magazine.

Arizona State University Professor John Sabo worked with other ASU researchers on the project, as well as researchers from the University of Washington, University of Maryland, Conservation International, the University of South Florida, the Mekong River Commission and Aalto University.

"The next steps in this research for me will be to determine the actual hydropower generation tradeoffs that this designer flow could lead to, and find out ways how this concept of designing flows can be applied in the broader arena of ecological engineering and ecosystem restoration," said Arias.

Read more about this in Science.