Faculty Fellows
Alan Kolata, Department of Anthropology
Sabina Shaikh, Social Sciences Collegiate Division & Harris School of Public Policy

Water sustainability is ultimately a human problem, not a physical or biological problem. Our project focuses on how people respond to current and impending environmental change caused by human activities in the complex hydrological system of the Mekong River. The natural flood-pulse of the Mekong River creates a predictable fluctuating water regime that millions of humans depend on for their livelihoods. Economic development, the emergence of an extensive hydropower industry, land use conversions, and climate change are currently altering the Mekong flood-pulse at an accelerated pace. These transformations make this region a “hotspot” of rapid environmental change that will result in a smaller floodplain, a shorter flooding period, and significant alterations in floodplain habitat. These alterations could lower ecosystem productivity for those who depend on the River.

Our project will measure the existing hydrologically-based human activities in the Cambodian Region of the Mekong River floodplain and examine how those activities will change under a range of climate change and human development scenarios. We will describe the relationships between ecosystem services, economic livelihoods, and cultural adaptations of floodplain inhabitants to derive possible adaptive pathways for human populations. Although focused on the Lower Mekong floodplains of Cambodia, results of this research will be applicable to other areas in developing countries with major riparian communities and with plans for future hydropower development, such as the Brazilian Amazon, West Africa, and the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta.


Alan L. Kolata received his Ph.D. in Anthropology from Harvard University and currently holds the Bernard E. and Ellen C. Sunny Distinguished Service Professorship at the University of Chicago. He pursues interdisciplinary research projects studying the long-term interactions of humans with their physical environment, including the effects of climate change on human communities. He has conducted research in Bolivia, Peru, Thailand and, most recently, Cambodia where he and his collaborators focus on the environmental and social impacts of large-scale hydroelectric development of the Mekong River Basin.

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sabina-shaikh1Sabina Shaikh is the Director of the Program on Global Environment and Environment, Agriculture and Food (EAF) working group at the University of Chicago, and a Senior Lecturer in the Social Science Collegiate Division and Harris School for Public Policy. Sabina’s research focuses on the economic valuation of environmental resources and the development of market and behavioral-based programs for natural resource management. Her current research projects include the effect of Mekong River water sustainability on livelihoods in Cambodia, and the association of diabetes in the U.S. with exposure to environmental contaminants. Dr. Shaikh holds a B.A. in Economics from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Resource Economics from the University of California at Davis.

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