The Mekong’s rugged terrain and temperamental rapids unfortunately make it unsuitable as a major transport route. Since the Europeans’ first encounter with the river, many have sought to exploit it for profit as a transportation channel. The most significant attempt was the French Mekong Expedition (1866–68) led by Doudart de Lagrée and Francis Garnier that aimed to chart the river in search of a navigable route into China. The expedition was fruitless and ended in tragedy. Other explorations of the river came to the same conclusion: the Mekong is unsuitable as a transportation route.
It was not until after the Second World War that a new major economic use of the Mekong came into picture. In 1957, the United Nations (UN) specialised agency, Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (ECAFE), released a report, Development of Water Resources in the Lower Mekong, recommending the construction of multipurpose dams on the river for irrigation and flood control. More importantly, it highlighted hydropower as one of the major ways in which the Mekong’s resources could be exploited, especially in areas where there are great rapids, such as Khone Falls in Laos. Electricity generated from the river had the potential to power development and bring in income for the region.
Shortly after, another two reports were made about the Mekong, similarly emphasising the river’s hydropower potential. The first was by the retired Lieutenant-General of the US Army Corps of Engineers, Raymond Wheeler. Supported by the UN, his report reaffirmed the Mekong’s potential for hydropower, and ambitiously outlined detailed plans for mainstream and tributary dams in the basin. The other report was a Ford Foundation sponsored study by Gilbert White, titled Economics and Social Aspects of Lower Mekong Development. White’s 1962 study focused on the environmental and social impacts of hydropower plans drawn up by the two prior reports.
These three landmark reports reflected clearly the prevailing view of the time. Hydropower was seen as progressive and modern. It was not that the negative costs were ignored. The reports acknowledged that huge areas would be flooded, and large populations would be resettled. However, the overall gains of hydropower development were seen to far outweigh its repercussions.
Dragged into the Cold War, Indochina was plagued with continuous wars and incessant conflict over the next few decades, ending only in 1992. America lost the ideological battle in the region. During this time, it was nearly impossible to execute any significant infrastructural development on the Mekong. Yet, while Indochina was mired in strife, China made significant progress on their end of the river in Yunnan. Construction of the first dam, the Manwan dam, began in 1984 and was completed by 1993. Since then, the Mekong countries have built over 60 hydro dams along the Mekong and its tributaries, with hundreds more planned and underway.