The Mekong River, a major river in Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest in the world, is a lifeline for more than sixty million people living in the Mekong region (Yunnan province of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam). Today, the river faces multiple challenges and risks, and is ranked as one of the five rivers in the world which suffers the most serious reduction of water flow. Climate change, energy demand and construction of hydropower dams, mismanagement of water resources, population growth and urbanization are threatening the ecosystem of the river.
The planning and construction of hydroelectric main-strem dams along the river is a politically and economically complex issue in the region. According to scientific research, the dams have negative impacts on the environment, as the flow of nutrient-rich sediment disrupts fishery and the whole biodiversity in the region. Cambodia and Vietnam, the two countries downstream, are the main victims of such development.
According to research conducted by Oxfam and World Wildlife Fund, the mainstream dams will reduce Cambodia’s fish consumption from 49kg to 22kg per person per year by 2030. This is also equivalent to a reduction of 55% in fish consumption, the main source of protein of Cambodians. Rice production in the Mekong delta will also be significantly reduced due to the lack of water resources, soil salinization and poor sediment flow. This will result in serious food insecurity in the region.
Experiences from other parts of the world have shown that without proper management of such important trans-boundary water resources, conflicts are inevitable. Currently, anti-dam campaigns have been mushrooming in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam, with the governments of Cambodia and Vietnam having officially protested against the planned mainstream dams.
Regardless of calls from the downstream countries and requests of civil society organizations for the Lao government to postpone and even annul the construction of dam projects, Lao is going ahead with the construction of the Xayaburi dam (which is 30 percent completed), and plans to construct another dam, Don Sahong. The disagreement between Lao and its two neighbors (Cambodia and Vietnam), concerning the construction of the dams is threatening regional cooperation and community building process.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), established in 1995, was formed to facilitate regional cooperation on sustainable management of these shared water resources. Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam are the official member countries of the MRC, while China and Myanmar are the observing countries. However, the MRC does not have much executive power and authority to enforce on its members. In reality, it is a toothless institution and reforms are therefore needed to improve its status.
Acknowledging mounting challenges arising from the river management, regional countries agreed to hold a summit among the heads of government of the MRC member countries. The first summit held in Thailand in 2010, reaffirmed the importance of building closer cooperation among the MRC members and deepening institutional reform of the MRC. The leaders committed to working together to realize “a sustainable integrated water resources management for sustainable development, economic growth, and the alleviation of poverty and improvement of livelihoods in the Mekong basin.”
At the second summit in 2014, in Vietnam, pressing issues related to water resources management were addressed. In their statement, the heads of the MRC governments identify priority areas of action, which included the implementation of the MRC’s Council Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River Basin, the impacts assessment of mainstream hydropower projects, disaster risks reduction, food security and livelihood, water quality, river ecology and cooperation with the dialogue and development partners. However, the statement does not put enough pressure on Lao concerning mainstream hydropower dams.
There are three scenarios in managing the lower Mekong River. The first scenario: if the mainstream dams are completed, then the conflict between the Mekong’s riparian countries is going to be inevitably severe with high security and economic implications. Regional cooperation and integration will be seriously disrupted and the ASEAN community building process will face a significant setback from such a crisis.
The second scenario: if the postponement and even cancelation of the proposed 11 mainstream hydropower dams is realistic, then regional countries will further deepen cooperation to assist each other in terms of development and poverty reduction, and this promotes joint management of the trans-boundary water resources. In such a scenario, international development partners and financial institutions need to further assist the lower Mekong countries to reduce poverty and promote sustainable management of the river. More development assistance to Lao is needed as an incentive for not developing hydropower dams and supporting alternative ways of development.
The third possible scenario would be for the Xayaburi dam to be completed, but other mainstream dams, such as Don Sanhong dam, will not be allowed to build. In such a case, the Lao government needs to work closer with the Mekong River Commission and downstream countries in managing the Xayaburi dam to minimize the adverse impacts caused by the dam.
The prospects of sustainably managing the Mekong River are slim. However, as long as there is political will from the political leaders, active engagement from the civil society groups and local community, environmental and social responsibility of the private sector, and support from the international donor community and development partners, the river can still be well managed.
The functional structure of MRC needs to be vitalized in order to allow this organization to have more responsibility and authority in managing the river. The member countries should lower their sovereignty and respect the rules and regulations imposed by the MRC. Internal research capacity on sustainable development of the MRC needs to be improved. The development partners need to increase technical support provided to the MRC.
ASEAN needs to build a closer working partnership with the MRC. The whole ASEAN community building process is at stake and will be futile if the Mekong River is not sustainably governed, and differences and conflicts among the riparian countries are not properly addressed. ASEAN should pay more attention to the management of the river. Preventive diplomacy in water-related conflict should be considered at the ASEAN level. An ASEAN-MRC working group should be established to promote consultation and closely monitor the development and management of the river.
The future of the 60 million people living along the Mekong River depends much on political will and leadership of the regional governments, the capacity of the regional institutions (MRC and ASEAN), and the support from the international community, in sustaining the flow of the river and preserving the ecology of the river system. A partnership between the government, private sector and civil society, including the grassroots, should be further developed and strengthened.
There is not much time left before the water and food security crisis hits the Mekong region. It is an urgent task for the regional stakeholders to confront the challenges head-on and seek common and holistic solutions. The sound management of the Mekong River will serve everyone’s long-term interests. It matters all countries in the region.