Mekong River: A New China-Led Ecological Crisis?
By: Mike Wu
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At 4,909 km in length, the Mekong is Asia’s third longest river sustaining over 70 million people across six countries with active fisheries, farming, industrial production and hydropower. However, the river’s long-term sustainability has been continuously threatened by expansive energy projects in the region. Despite the establishment of various cooperation mechanisms, these mechanisms either are too weak to impact dispute conflicts or unilaterally implement Chinese values. As each party desires to retain some forms of policy advantages over the other, the ever-increasing environmental challenges should be properly addressed in a cooperative manner.
According to the Economist’s Water Security Threats report, biodiversity in the Mekong Watershed is among the highest in the world. With approximately 20,000 plant and 2,500 animal species throughout the Basin, the river generates 25% of the world’s freshwater fish and 15% of its rice (Economist Intelligence Unit). 60% of the Mekong population is dependent on primary sector industries like fishing and farming, and any vicissitudes in the water flow could thus bring dire consequences upon local communities. In July 2019, a historic drought occurred two months into the area’s rainy season. The once water-abundant Tonle Sap Lake was dangerously close to drying out, killing freshwater fishes, and affecting over 2.5 million people in Cambodia(Fawthrop). Although the extreme levels of dryness from 2019 have not occurred again, the drought still continues as Tonle Sap, a major source of the Mekong River, now enters its fourth year of this devastating dry era. During a Radio Free Asia interview, the Stimson Center’s SE Asia expert Brian Eyler stated that “fish catches per community are down 80 to 90 percent.”(Radio Free Asia). Though analysts suggest that the lack of rainfall was the main contributor to this ecological crisis, constant dam-building from upstream countries such as China and Laos are believed to be one of the factors which exacerbated this drought into one of the worst in over 100 years. As developing economies struggle to meet the environmental goals in finding alternative and renewable energies, hydropower becomes a favorable option as it could utilize the already abundant water flow and turn it into electricity that could power millions and support industrial development along the river. Since 1997, China has built eleven dams in the upper river basin in accordance with its renewable energy initiatives. With the completion of eleven more in the next five years, China is expected to generate 31,605 megawatts of power, enough to power around 21 million people for an entire year(Novasia). In the lower Mekong basin, Laos completed the Xayaburi Dam and Don Sahong Dam in 2020 with three more planned for the future. Other dams in the Mekong tributaries such as Cambodia’s Lower Sesan 2 and the Seven Man-Ou hydropower cascade dams in Laos were completed and fully operational by 2020 (Nguyen).
However, the impacts of these dams are immense. River sediments and natural species that are vital to water security, local industries, and biodiversity in the downstream region were largely disadvantaged by these infrastructure projects. Without the proper sediments like sands, soil and stones from the upstream Yunnan Province, riverbanks and villages in the downstream region are at risk of washing away. Species like the Mekong giant catfish have also been blocked from migrating downstream due to the high-speed turbines and water pressures within these water barriers. According to the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) macroeconomics summary, the Mekong fishing industry’s decline will lead to a severe economic loss of 23 billion dollars by 2040. The benefits of such project are also not widely dispersed; although Laos’s dams were expected to bring the country an extra 4.6 billion dollars of revenue, over 70% of these funds will be diverted to the project’s developers and financiers, offering local residents at risk little to no compensation (Macro Economic Assessment). Artificial energy infrastructures have continuously been the main exacerbator that deals excessive, irreversible damage to the watershed, while local populations get little in return for the risks they incur.
There exist several multilateral cooperative mechanisms throughout the Mekong watershed. The MRC is a regional intergovernmental organization founded in 1995 by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. This is the Mekong region’s unique and independent association designed to oversee and ensure sustainable development throughout the region. (Brian) The MRC mainly acts as an advisory body supplemented with data monitoring and intellectual publications to provide member states with strategic planning and reliable statistics. Despite its ambitious initiatives, China’s unwillingness to join this organization undermines the MRC’s power to actively engage in future Chinese planning in the Mekong watershed.
In China, Xi Jinping’s novel foreign policy initiatives fostered the formation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) mechanism in 2016. Under this mechanism, Beijing is able to maintain its role as the sole leader and implement Chinese values and standards. China advertises the LMC as a tool for development and poverty alleviation that suits the overall image of a China-imposed “balanced globalization that benefits all”(Brian). Beijing also uses the concepts of equality, noninterference and efficiency to constrain alternative policies from other countries and organizations. In 2016, China promised 300 million dollars in 5 years and a loan amount worth 10 billion dollars to demonstrate China’s swiftness in providing economic assistance(Xue). However, member states in this region were not exactly convinced of China’s narrative. The LMC has little local credibility in Southeast Asia as it is entirely staffed by China and denies any negative impacts of the Chinese-built upstream dams. Its lack of data transparency from its hydropower infrastructure has also raised skepticism among Mekong states where they expect greater transparency from Beijing (Xue). The United States also maintains interests in this region as the late Trump and Biden administration revived Obama’s Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) in 2009. It was renamed as the Mekong-US Partnership (MUSP) that places heavy emphasis on transparency and “science-based decision making.”(China US Zero Sum) The MUSP suits the Biden administration’s overall objective of re-engaging regional partners to rebuild their confidence in the United States. It is designed to create pathways for member states to directly address their concerns, interest, and requests towards Washington while balancing China’s expanding influence around the Mekong watershed. Regional policymakers, private sectors and NGOs have also welcomed the presence of the United States, as they imagined Biden’s administration to be a balancer that enforces multilateralism and centrality in the Mekong.
Through the increasing number of actors participating in the Mekong-Lancang watershed affairs, the increase in intensity and severity of China and the United States’ competing interests is inevitable within the next five years. China will be building more dams and the United States will be offering more support, thus stakes and competition will likely rise. In the coming years, thus, it is imperative that regional mechanisms deal with the competing interests of Beijing and Washington, as well as influential regional powers.
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“Drought, Dams on Mekong River Drop Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake to Record Low Levels.” Radio Free Asia, www.rfa.org/english/news/cambodia/lake-07272020174242.html.
Fawthrop, Tom. “Something Is Very Wrong on the Mekong River.” The Diplomat, thediplomat.com/2019/08/something-is-very-wrong-on-the-mekong-river/.
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“Water Security Threats Demand New Collaborations: Lessons from the Mekong River Basin.” Climate & Clean Air Coalition, The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2017, www.ccacoalition.org/en/resources/water-security-threats-demand-new-collaborations-lessons-mekong-river-basin. Accessed 3 Nov. 2022.
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