Make or break time for the Mekong

By: Daniel Besant - Posted on: May 2, 2016 | Cambodia

As drought lingers and unfettered dam construction plugs the Mekong river, managing the life-giving waterway becomes ever more crucial. All eyes are now on a new China-led initiative that claims to have the region’s best interests at heart

In August 1296, Zhou Daguan, a Chinese commercial envoy from the court of Emperor Chengzong of Yuan, visited the ancient capital of the Khmer empire, Angkor, in what is now Cambodia. His account of the visit, known as The Customs of Cambodia, paints a picture of a flourishing city that spanned more than 1,000 square kilometres. Just a century later, however, its residents had abandoned the area.

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High and dry: boats lie stranded in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam last month

Much as the Mayan civilisation in Central America was destabilised by a period of extreme drought interspersed with torrential rains, evidence now suggests Angkor suffered a similar fate. The megacity – the largest in the pre-industrial world – relied heavily on the waters of the Mekong river’s basin, just as tens of millions of people do today.

Although too early to state categorically that we are entering a similarly tempestuous climatic period, there is no doubting the severity of the current drought in Southeast Asia. The ongoing dearth of rain is being blamed on a strong El Niño weather pattern – a cycle of extreme weather conditions caused by warmer-than-average sea temperatures in the Pacific.

“It’s one of the most severe, perhaps one of the three most severe, El Niño events recorded,” Sanny Jegillos, a senior advisor on disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Development Programme’s regional hub in Bangkok, told Southeast Asia Globe as early as February.

But even as the current El Niño subsides, another threat looms. A strong El Niño is often followed by a correspondingly intense La Niña, a period of unusually cold ocean temperatures in the Equatorial Pacific. These conditions can bring above-average rainfall carried by typhoons, the number of which increase during La Niña events.

Management of water resources

All of this puts the management of water resources into sharp focus, particularly that of the Mekong. The watercourse is an aquatic lifeline that slices through a huge part of mainland Southeast Asia, running 4,909km from its source in the Tibetan plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the Lower Mekong Basin, an area within the latter four countries, about 60 million people rely on the waterway as a source of food and income. It is no coincidence that the name “Mekong”, derived from the Thai name for the river, Mae Nham Kong, translates as “Mother of Water”.

Until recently, the most active intergovernmental agency working on the river was the Mekong River Commission (MRC), set up in 1995. However, only four of the six Mekong countries are represented on the MRC: Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. Primarily a research organisation, it also makes recommendations for the river’s management but has no power to enforce them.

In 2010, after an assessment of proposed hydropower dams on the Mekong, the MRC recommended a ten-year moratorium on their construction so it could conduct full studies on the dams’ environmental impact. This was widely ignored and 11 dams are now under construction or in planning stages in the Lower Mekong Basin alone. In the Upper Mekong, in China, seven other dams have already been constructed and at least 20 more are in the planning or building stages.

Back downstream, the stakes are staggeringly high, particularly for the poor who rely so heavily on the river for sustenance. “A major issue that needs to be addressed along the Mekong is food security, in particular sustained capture fish production,” said Eric Baran, senior scientist at the NGO WorldFish. “The fish yield in Cambodia, for instance, is superior to the cattle, pig and chicken production all together – it provides 81% of the animal protein supply in the country.”

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Nutrient-rich: fish is a mainstay of diets along the Mekong. Photo: Nigel Dickinson

Just as in ancient times, Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake is of major importance to the country as a source of food and livelihoods. The lake and its accompanying river, an offshoot of the Mekong, is a hydrological wonder. During the wet season from June to October, when the waters of the Mekong are at their highest, the Tonle Sap river flows backwards, expanding the lake from 3,000 square kilometres to 10,000 square kilometres.

But that is in ideal conditions. “The Tonle Sap is at the lowest level I have seen it for 30 years,” local fishing communities representative Phat Phalla told the Phnom Penh Post newspaper back in October. “Drought has combined with hydroelectric dams in the upper Mekong river to reduce the flow of water, which, along with illegal fishing, is slashing fish numbers.”

Cambodia is not the only beneficiary of the Tonle Sap. Downstream in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, the outflow from the lake in the dry season helps to keep seawater from encroaching on rice fields and ruining crops. Almost half of the country’s rice is produced in the region, but this year nearly 50% of the 2.2m hectares of arable land in the delta has been swamped by salty seawater, according to a Than Nienh News article. In early April, the UN reported that the brine had intruded 90km inland.

At the same time, DHI, a Danish water research company, submitted its findings to the MRC that agricultural production in the lower reaches of the Mekong Delta would fall dramatically because the planned dams along the Mekong would confine river sediments, which carry massive volumes of nutrients downstream and help to keep the sea at bay in the delta.

If the march of dam construction continues, DHI predicts annual farming and fishery losses of $450m in Cambodia and more than $760m in Vietnam, as well as fish catches falling by 50% in both countries and 10% of the delta’s fish species simply disappearing. DHI also   warns that if all the dams are built they will cause “long-lasting damage to the floodplains and aquatic environment, resulting in significant reduction in the socio-economic status of millions of residents”.

Dams in Laos

Many of the proposed dams are in upstream Laos, a country with a small population and plenty of mountains and fast-flowing rivers that make it ideal for hydropower projects. The Lao government intends to transform the country into “the battery of Southeast Asia” by selling its electricity to power-hungry Thailand and Vietnam.

Despite the best efforts of the MRC to advocate for change, its days may be numbered. On 23 March, China hosted the inaugural meeting of the Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a new Beijing-led regional body for the Mekong, which is known as the Lancang in China. Sitting around the table on the resort island of Hainan were representatives from each Mekong country, a first for the six nations. Significantly, it was also the first time China had been involved in discussions about the river with all other stakeholders.

Amidst the hyperbole about a shared community of prosperity and peace in the LMC’s first declaration was a 26-point outline of the areas it will cover. These include high-level exchanges between member countries and a focus on security, agricultural and public health cooperation, not to mention a raft of economic and development initiatives. And Beijing is backing all this up with a briefcase full of soft loans and credit lines from its recently formed Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, an institution with $100 billion in its coffers.

Although the LMC declaration contains a host of laudable aims and much-needed initiatives, many suspect that China is not committed to looking beyond its own interests. “China’s record elsewhere indicates that if left to its own devices, it will pursue more aggressive tactics to expand its political influence in the Lower Mekong and propagate patterns of disregard for international rules and norms,” Phuong Nguyen, a research associate at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, wrote on 14 April. Some diplomats are even concerned that the region could become “the next South China Sea”, Nguyen noted.

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Key players: the leaders of the six Mekong countries pose for photos in Hainan last month

US-based strategic intelligence company Stratfor said the LMC puts Beijing in a position to exploit its role upstream to bring the other Mekong countries into closer alignment with its interests, initially through infrastructure development. “The drought will only assist its policies, highlighting water politics in a region where they already play an important role,” according to a post on Stratfor’s website.

Yet some in the water resources community can see benefits to Beijing’s involvement. “[Having China] is a good thing,” said a source close to the MRC, who wished to remain anonymous. “China controls the Mekong, so what’s the point of the MRC without China?” And the bonus is that China is going to pay for it all, the source added.

As if to underline its munificence, shortly before the March meeting, China released water from one of its hydropower reservoirs “for emergency use” in drought-stricken downstream countries. “People living along the Lancang Mekong river are nourished by the same river,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said. “It goes without saying that friends should help each other when help is needed.”

But some onlookers have said China’s release of water was not enough and that the country regularly schedules releases at this time of year anyway. Laos added even more, doubling the amount heading downstream. This could have made a difference to Cambodia and Vietnam, but the Thais, desperate to irrigate their parched rice fields, “brought out every pump they could find to suck it all up”, said the anonymous source. Clearly there is still a long way to go to solve the region’s water woes equitably.

For many Mekong nations, in particular Vietnam, there really is no other choice but to huddle together under the LMC if they want to have a say in how the river is managed in the face of China’s regional dominance. They are, essentially, beholden to the Asian giant.

“I think the Vietnamese realise that China has them by the balls. They realise they have the worst disaster they’ve ever had,” the anonymous source said. “They are getting desperate and realise that all China has to do is wait for an El Niño and turn off the tap, hold back the water at the wrong time and there’s not much they can do about it.”

What about the States?

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US Secretary of State John Kerry

Since 2009, the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) has been working with the governments of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and, latterly, Myanmar, which joined in 2012. The LMI has three main areas of concern: education, health and water management. This final branch aims to assist member countries in better preparing for future challenges, particularly in relation to climate change and sustainable development.

Speaking at an LMI ministers’ meeting in August 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry (pictured above) was upbeat about the progress made since 2009. “[The US] has invested more than $100 million in this initiative, supporting hundreds of training sessions, workshops, policy dialogues,” he said.

But for all this effort, little seems to have been achieved on the central issue of water resource management. Last month, US-based strategic intelligence company Stratfor published an analysis piece stating that most of the LMI’s actions “have focused on education and humanitarian efforts, including supporting disease detection and outbreak control, rather than water management” – and that, perhaps crucially, “China was excluded as a member”