The countries of the Indochinese Peninsula are struggling with the problem of the deteriorating state of the Mekong River, which scientists and publicists are increasingly boldly describing as an ecological disaster. Alongside climate change, existing hydropower plants and those under construction in China and Laos are among the greatest threats. These ventures deepen the regional dispute over a river crucial to communities of tens of millions of people.
The Mekong is the most important river of the Indochinese Peninsula. This watercourse has its source in the Tibetan highlands and flows south through China, where it is referred to as the Lancang, winding through the territories of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and ending with a vast delta in Vietnam, flowing into the South China Sea. This watery spine of the peninsula, with its ribs in the form of a rich network of tributaries, forms a vast river basin – home to some 70 million people. Its rivers provide an abundant source of drinking water (also needed for agriculture), food, as well as a convenient form of transport and, increasingly, a means of generating electricity from the rapidly expanding hydropower industry. The high dependence of the population on the Mekong is worrying in view of the environmental disaster that threatens it.
Causes of the crisis
The deteriorating condition of the river and its surroundings manifests itself in many ways, corresponding to the multitude of reasons behind this state of affairs. It is worth starting with the significant pollution from rubbish – in a 2017 study conducted by German researchers from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research and the Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences, the Mekong was included in the infamous group of ten rivers that together account for 88-95% of global ocean plastic pollution. Incidentally, this is mainly an Asian problem, as seven other rivers from the continent were also included in the list (Schmidt, Krauth and Wagner, 2017: 5).
A separate crisis concerns the overexploitation of the river related to the extraction of sand, needed, among other things, for concrete production. Overexploitation is a problem in many developing countries with rapid urbanisation and has not escaped Southeast Asia either. In Vietnam, for example, it is leading to the collapse of banks, destroying infrastructure, fields and homes. To make matters worse, the Vietnamese authorities are unable to control this largely illegal practice. Despite bold declarations to end illegal sand mining, due to its scale, instances of corruption and the profit-driven determination of the miners, they are unable to prevent further environmental degradation. Together with rising global sea and ocean levels (and other negative effects of climate change) and the cause of which we will discuss in a moment, this is causing a slow but progressive process – literally – of the disappearance of the Mekong Delta, which is a densely populated region that is economically crucial for Vietnam in terms of agriculture and fisheries. (Beiser, 2018)
Another problem is linked to the rapid expansion of the hydropower dam system by Laos and China’s already considerable hydropower potential. The Middle Kingdom today has 11 large active power plants (the fact that they can temporarily hold 47 billion cubic metres of water says a lot about their scale). They are located in the mainstream of the river and seven more are planned (Eyler, 2020). Laos, largely through Chinese loans and investment as part of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is seeking to pursue a strategy of becoming the “battery of Southeast Asia”. The aim is to enrich itself by exporting surplus hydroelectric power to neighbouring countries. We are talking about approved plans to build more than 140 dams on the Mekong and its tributaries within the country, of which about a third are already completed and another third are under construction (Eyler, 2018). However, experts from different parts of the world see great danger in the implementation of projects of this scale.
Dams harm the functioning of the river basin and its ecosystem in several ways. They threaten the fish populations with which the Mekong has always abundantly supplied fishermen – talk of worsening problems for even 850 already endangered species. A significant reduction in the amount of naturally occurring sediment in the water, to which the river owes its muddy colour, has a negative impact on agriculture and increases erosion processes. Of even greater concern is the contribution of this infrastructure to the drought problem, which has hit Southeast Asia with record force for the second year in a row, causing water levels to drop by two-thirds (Hunt, 2020). According to analysts at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, citing a US State Department-funded study on the condition of the Mekong (Basist and Williams, 2020), dams located upstream (i.e. in China) were expected to be the main reason for the 2019 drought, which would not have occurred in the absence of the impact from said infrastructure. This caused severe difficulties for irrigation of farmland and fishing (Funaiole and Hart, 2020). Larger temporary falls in water levels throughout the year, facilitated by climate change and dam operations, will also reduce transport capacity on the river, which is used in this way by almost all countries in the region (OECD iLibrary, 2020). In addition, the operation of the dams threatens to cause flooding, a risk of which, despite their promises, the Chinese often fail to warn people living in vulnerable areas in good time. A report by the National Geographic reported on a resident of northern Thailand, Pumee Boontom, who complained that the dams had caused the water to change level rapidly and unpredictably instead of gradually, increasing the risk of flooding. The Chinese are nevertheless lax in warning neighbouring countries of these events, so that residents are forced to draw their own conclusions from Chinese weather forecasts (Nijhuis, 2015).
The political dimension of the case
It can be concluded that dams therefore pose a double threat to the countries of the basin. Firstly, together with climate change, they produce long-term negative ecological effects, gradually reducing the food security of the countries located there. Secondly, they can, under the right circumstances, trigger a natural disaster. While there is no indication that the Chinese side will deliberately create a drought in 2019, rather than simply being driven by the goal of maximising the efficiency of its power plants, without considering downstream impacts (as Brian Eyler, an analyst at the Washington-based Stimson Center, argues (Johnson and Tostevin, 2020), the very capacity of the country to do so is alarming. After all, it could provide a potentially powerful means of pressuring states in the region to force them to take certain actions – or not to take others. With the growing rivalry between the PRC and the United States, each state on the Indochina Peninsula becomes a potential arena for the struggle for influence between the two superpowers. Such conditions prompt the expansion of the stock of tools available to exert pressure on them, including those as destructive in their effects as this.
The described scenario can be characterised as an available “nuclear option”, which – if used for political purposes – would rather serve as blackmail, perhaps effective in the short term, but in the long term antagonising the states of the region towards China. The emergence of a vital common threat to a whole group of states, according to the principle that nothing unites like a common enemy, would push them into the arms of the Americans, or at least induce them to function as part of a better coordinated bloc in opposition to the Middle Kingdom. Beijing, wishing to increase its influence in order to build an advantage over Washington, should rather show willingness to strengthen cooperation in order to solve the problem. As Michał Zaręba writes in his article describing the history of China’s relations with the Lower Mekong countries in this area, Beijing has indeed often (though not always) presented itself as eager for dialogue. Regardless of this narrative, however, problems with water levels in the river have recurred repeatedly over the years (Zaręba, 2017: 70-75). China’s attributed responsibility for the 2019 drought in the analyses cited above seems to perpetuate a state of affairs in which high-level narratives and agreements do not meaningfully translate into the actual state of affairs, which is the continued use of power plants without regard to the interests of the basin countries.
States in the region, aware of how much China’s influence on regional hydropolitics has increased because of its dams, are inclined to work out multilateral solutions. This is confirmed by their repeated initiatives urging China to change its approach (ibid.). However, one obstacle to better management of the Mekong is the fact that the authorities in the lower reaches of the river are focused on particular interests, often making it difficult to present a unified message to China. Another problem is that the Middle Kingdom treats the issue of the expansion and use of hydropower installations exclusively as an internal matter, and therefore does not require consultation or even the consent of other countries in the region.
Is it possible to save the Mekong?
The cumulative nature of the problem, resulting from the multiple overlapping effects of various activities and processes, necessitates a comprehensive approach to attempts to solve it. The river is a common asset of all the river basin states, thus its problems are shared. It is therefore crucial to develop such a format of cooperation, which assumes fair participation of all stakeholders. It is indispensable for such tasks to ensure their transparency and to implement mechanisms for control of the arrangements made. What also needs to be addressed in this area is the attitude, shared to a greater or lesser extent by Asian countries, towards the preservation of national sovereignty, which can be a source of obstruction in many multilateral initiatives. Countries in the region must also be prepared to evaluate their economic plans to take greater account of the environmental costs of their investments. In view of the fact that some of the problems are due to corruption or other violations of the law, an important element will certainly be to improve the activities of the authorities enforcing compliance with the law. A practice that will make it possible to limit the negative social effects of the crisis may also be the creation of platforms for consultation with local communities, which remain the main and direct victims of its existence. Finally, each country would have to take the course of honestly implementing climate policies in line with international agreements in order to limit the effects of a process that is one of the main culprits of the unfolding water crisis.
Quite apart from assessing the chances of developing such standards, because of the potential for these problems to worsen, even greater water crises are to be expected in this part of the world in the future. They will bring new opportunities for tensions, not only political, but also within the societies that will be directly affected. All this seems to confirm the thesis, popular in recent years, that water is set to become the most important resource in world politics in the 21st century.
(2020). Key water-related development challenges in the Mekong River Basin – Brief overview. OECD iLibrary <https://www.oecd-ilibrary.org/sites/b3463307-en/index.html?itemId=/content/component/b3463307-en#section-d1e1605>
Basist A., Williams C. (2020). Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions. Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership <https://558353b6-da87-4596-a181-b1f20782dd18.filesusr.com/ugd/bae95b_0e0f87104dc8482b99ec91601d853122.pdf?index=true>
Beiser V. (2018). Dramatic Photos Show How Sand Mining Threatens a Way of Life in Southeast Asia. National Geographic <https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/03/vietnam-mekong-illegal-sand-mining/>
Eyler B. (2018). Rethink plans to dam Mekong after Laos disaster. International Union for Conservation of Nature < https://www.iucn.org/news/viet-nam/201808/rethink-plans-dam-mekong-after-laos-disaster>
Eyler B. (2020). Science Shows Chinese Dams Are Devastating the Mekong. Foreign Policy <https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/science-shows-chinese-dams-devastating-mekong-river/>
Eyler B. (2020). Mekong Mainstream Dams. Stimson Center <https://www.stimson.org/2020/mekong-mainstream-dams/>
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Hunt L. (2020). Struggling With Drought on the Mekong. The Diplomat <https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/struggling-with-drought-on-the-mekong/>
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Schmidt C., Krauth T., Wagner S. (2017). Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea. ACS Publications <https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/acs.est.7b02368>
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