The Past, Present, and Future of the Mekong River

Association of Mainland Southeast Asia Studies

Philip Hirsch, University of Sydney

In recent years, key publications on the Mekong River have described the waterway as “at risk”, “under threat” and in its “last days”.  The fate of the river is bound up in its geography, history, geopolitical setting, governance, economic role, societal context including the changing livelihoods and cultures of those who have historically most depended on it, environmental change and, perhaps above all, evolving ideas about development.  As such, the trajectory of the river is a window onto many wider aspects of change in mainland Southeast Asia.  This talk will consider the future of the river in light of its past and current transformations in their regional context, including – but not limited to – the longstanding, partially realised and ambitious plans for hydropower development on the Mekong’s mainstream and its tributaries.


Philip Hirsch is Emeritus Professor of Human Geography at the University of Sydney and is a research affiliate at Chiang Mai University. He has published extensively on environment, development and agrarian change in Southeast Asia and has carried out rural fieldwork in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia over a period of three and a half decades. His recent books include the Routledge Handbook of the Environment in Southeast Asia (Routledge 2017); (with Ben Boer, Fleur Johns, Ben Saul and Natalia Scurrah), The Mekong: A Socio-Legal Approach to River Basin Development (Earthscan/Routledge 2016); and (with Derek Hall and Tania Li), Powers of Exclusion: Land Dilemmas in Southeast Asia (NUS Press/University of Hawaii Press 2011).


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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