Hydro-dam – A nature-based solution or an ecological problem: The fate of the Tonlé Sap Lake

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Abstract

Recent proliferation of hydro-dams was one of the nature-based solutions to meet the increasing demand for energy and food in the Lower Mekong River Basin (LMRB). While construction of these hydro-dams generated some hydropower and facilitated expansion of irrigated lands, it also significantly altered the basin-wide hydrology and subsequently impacted wetland ecosystems. Unintended adverse consequences of ecosystem services from lakes and wetlands offset the intended gains in hydroelectricity and irrigated agriculture. The trade-offs between gains in energy and food production and losses in aquatic ecosystem services were perceived to be significant but knowledge of the magnitude, spatial extent, and type of ecosystem services change is lacking and, therefore, the question whether the hydro-dam is an optimized solution or a potential ecological problem remains unanswered. In this study, as the first step to answer this question and using the Tonlé Sap Lake as an example, we quantified one of the impacts of hydro-dams on lake ecosystem's phenology in terms of open water area, a critical ecological characteristic that affects lake systems’ fish production, biodiversity, and livelihoods of the local communities. We used the MODIS-NDVI time series, forecast function and the Mann-Kendall trend test method to first quantify the open water area, analyzed its changes over time, and then performed correlation analysis with climate variables to disentangle dam impacts. The results showed reduced hydro-periods, diminishing lake seasonality and a declining trend in Tonlé Sap Lake open water area over the past 15 years. These changes were insignificantly related to climatic influence during the same period. It is concluded that basin-wide hydro-dam construction and associated agricultural irrigation were deemed to be the primary cause of these ecological changes. Further analyses of changes in the lake's ecosystem services, including provision and cultural services, need to be carried out in order to have a holistic understanding of the trade-offs brought by the hydro-dam proliferation as a solution to the emerging energy and food demand in the LMRB.

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