Hydropower and Livelihoods in the Mekong Basin: Reservoir Operation for Farming and Fishing Livelihoods, Optimal Livelihoods Strategies, and Simultaneous Optimization of Hydropower and Livelihood Goals

Reis, Julia, Civil Engineering - School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Culver, Teresa, Department of Civil Engineering, University of Virginia

Hydropower construction, with the promise of providing sustainable energy, government revenue, and economic development, is surging throughout many regions of the world, especially in Asia. The hydropower dams, however, damage natural fisheries and submerge fields. As dam construction dislodges rural communities, rural development experts struggle with how to help the displaced make their livelihoods in new lacustrine environments. One question is whether the dam infrastructure can directly benefit those who remain within the vicinity of the reservoir. Integrated water resources management (IWRM), the preeminent management paradigm for multi-objective reservoir management, seeks to consider hydrological, socio-economical, and ecological factors concurrently, yet water managers lack options to include livelihoods in their analyses. Managing land and water resources as an integrated system has become a goal of natural resource management during the past few decades. Despite the interest in integration, the tools for managing water resources and land use remain independent. As a result, water resource engineers and land use planners cannot easily work together on problems that involve multiple systems.
This dissertation analyzes reservoir operation and land use in one resettlement community adjacent to a new hydropower dam, located in the center of Lao People’s Democratic Republic. The overall objective is to develop tools and plans for coordinating hydropower reservoir operation and management of rural livelihoods. The first study investigates, through simulation, how dam and reservoir management may accommodate fishers and farmers in the resettlement village. The needs identified are for vegetable farming on the banks of the reservoir and diversified habitat for fish. The interventions investigated are 1) a lower water level during the cultivation period in order to expose the shoreline gardens and 2) constructed wetlands adjacent and connected to the reservoir to enhance fisheries. The recession agriculture measure lowered the average annual hydropower production by 8.1%, mainly during the months April–June. The constructed wetlands would have no impact on the operation of the hydropower system, and our calculations show that the wetlands are more likely to function as independent ponds separate from the reservoir as opposed to seasonally submerged marshes, potentially serving as a source of livelihoods for fishers.
The second study in this dissertation analyzes farming and fishing livelihoods by developing an optimization model to allocate resources, allowing economically productive and sustainable livelihoods for impacted communities to be identified and analyzed. This model maximizes net gains over five years to identify profitable livelihood strategies, including traditional activities (upland rice, shoreline gardens, extensive livestock, fishing) and a pilot program for irrigated vegetable gardens, given limited labor, land, and capital resources. For our case study, during a wet year when the area for shoreline gardening is restricted, the net gain is reduced only by 1% for the 5 years optimized. Achieving such a small reduction was accomplished by allocating 2% more labor to fishing. Other key findings were that diversification of labor would not be practiced in some scenarios given only a short-term outlook; a longer-term perspective is needed to survive the variability of the agricultural and fishing economy. We found that the communities that value food security over income sacrifice a maximum of 9% in net gain. A pilot program for dry-season vegetables, which may be introduced with an irrigation source of small conservation wetlands being constructed upstream, would generate 25% more net gain. Lastly, we found that sharing resources, enabling lower costs and labor requirements, generates 36% more net gain.
The third study links reservoir simulation with livelihoods optimization through a penalty-based optimization model. The model uses a gradient-based search tool to find optimal reservoir operation given multiple goals for farm benefits and hydropower. The goals for this study are hydropower generation and access to shoreline gardens to improve the livelihoods of displaced farmers. The optimization minimizes penalties relating to these goals, and the results can be compared to the baseline, considered to be the releases modeled in the baseline case in Chapter 2. When all goals are equally weighted, the optimal reservoir management policy resulted in 31% lower penalties compared to the baseline, which translates to a 3.2% increase in average energy generation and a 15% longer growing season in the reservoir drawdown area. Applying exclusively the agriculture penalty reduced the energy generation by 9.4%. Because of the high cost to reservoir operation, dam plant managers may choose to address livelihood goals in other ways including compensating farmers for their losses.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
water resources, hydropower, hydrology, livelihoods
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