Sharing the Mekong
Proper 'water governance' across borders is critical as dams and development threaten the environment and livelihood of millions.
"The Mekong River is the source of prosperity," an old saying goes, and it was once true for Pongsak Saitongmart. The 69-year-old former fisherman and his family of five largely depended on income from fishing and a vegetable farm fed by water from the Mekong.
Living in Bung Kan, a northeastern province next to the river, Mr Pongsak has seen his wealth diminishing with changing water flow patterns -- a phenomenon he has observed over the past two decades since China started building 11 dams on the upper Mekong. In 2019, Laos began operating the Xayaburi dam, the first mainstream dam built on the lower Mekong.
A declining fish catch caused Mr Pongsak's income to plummet. Once, he woke up in the morning to find his boat had disappeared because of an irregular strong current the previous night. The family's vegetables planted on the river bank were flooded by unpredictable rising water levels.
He eventually decided to give up fishing and work as a rubber tapper. He doesn't earn as much, and has to get up well before dawn to begin work.
"My family is hungrier. Though we can manage to survive, our life is not as complete as before," he said, adding that he has had to cut off his children's pocket money. Sometimes he must postpone paying school bus fees, he told Asia Focus.
His family is not alone. Other fishers in his village have left home to seek jobs in cities. The father of one family became a taxi driver in Bangkok, Mr Pongsak heard. Others earn meagre wages on construction sites. One family who relied heavily on the fishery had to borrow money and ended up selling their land to repay debt.
When upstream dams convert the Mekong's water energy to power the economy, they also divert wealth from the pockets of local communities that depend on the river. None of the dam developers have offered any solutions to restore that wealth, while denying the negative impact the structures cause.
"Despite increased urbanisation and industrialisation in the Mekong basin, we continue to see pockets of poverty," said Manasvi Srisodapol, the Thai ambassador to the United States, during a webinar on the challenges of the Mekong region, organised by the East-West Center last month.
There are people who have been marginalised by economic development, he pointed out, and the inequality gap will only widen unless the riparian countries adopt an inclusive economic model that leaves no one behind.
Almost all of the electricity generated by the Xayaburi dam in northern Laos is sold to Thailand.
The initial idea to construct dams on the mainstream Mekong did not take into account inclusive development, a concept that has only started to gain ground in the international community in the last two decades or so.
In the 1990s, China built the first dam on the upper Mekong, known as the Lancang in China, to power the economy of southern China during the early period of its opening-up policy. Construction of more dams followed with no public consultation with downstream countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The reservoirs of the 11 Chinese dams can store more than 47 billion cubic metres of water and can generate 21,310 megawatts of electricity.
More than 200 dams of 15MW or more are planned, under construction or completed in the Lower Mekong basin portions of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Already more than 100 have been completed on various Mekong tributaries and two -- Xayaburi and Don Sahong -- on the mainstream Mekong in Laos.
The government of Laos in 2007 set in motion plans for the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam, built by the Thai construction company Ch. Karnchang Plc and financially backed by four Thai banks. Around 95% of the electricity generated from the dam is sold to Thailand.
After three years of planning and the completion of an environmental impact assessment, the Lao government arranged public consultations with the governments and local communities of downstream countries. It was the first major test of the 1995 Mekong Agreement, which had been signed by Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Participants in the consultation process agreed that the environmental and social implications of a large mainstream dam in Laos would be considerable. They did not reach a consensus on how to proceed, recommending instead that further talks be held at the ministerial level. But Vietnam proposed that a decision on Xayaburi be deferred for a decade.
Nevertheless, the Lao government declared the consultation process closed and in 2012 it went ahead with dam construction, breaching the trust of its neighbours.
Laos has also built its second mainstream dam, Don Sahong, in Champasak province near the border with Cambodia. However, this is just a tip of the iceberg. Nine more mainstream dams and 120 tributary dams are planned in the lower Mekong basin to harness hydroelectric power.
As one of the poorest countries in the region and with few other exportable resources, Laos sees hydropower as a ticket to prosperity under its "Battery of Asia" vision.
Most of the Mekong countries have spent decades trying to recover from the impact of a series of armed conflicts and the Vietnam War, which severely affected their natural resources and manpower.
The mighty Mekong was an untapped resource that was largely forgotten during those times of conflict. But over the past three decades, both China and the other Mekong countries have turned their eyes to the river to tap its potential.
But dams are often controversial no matter where in the world they are built, and the Mekong region is no exception.
A study conducted from 2012 to 2017 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- an inter-governmental river basin organisation established by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam -- shows that the hydropower dams built and planned on the lower mainstream and tributaries would severely threaten the ecology, economy and food security of the region, with an impact on 70 million people who depend on the river.
According to the study, if all the planned dams are completed, they will reduce the amount of sediment reaching the Mekong delta by 97%, affecting agriculture, fisheries and water quality, thus undermining local and regional economies.
Dams currently block more than 50% of the Mekong's sediment load and that sediment is necessary for fish populations and agricultural processes, particularly in Cambodia and Vietnam, according to the Mekong Policy Project at the Stimson Center, a US public-policy group.
Significantly, dams cut off migratory pathways for fish -- the Mekong produces 20% of the world's freshwater fish catch. The MRC report warned of a severe decline in fish stocks, saying Thailand would lose 55% of its catch, Laos 50%, Cambodia 35% and Vietnam 30%. When combined with the threat from climate change, the region is expected to face severe floods and drought that interrupt food security.
"As a result, more people living in the region will be pushed into poverty, and much of the Lower Mekong Basin will become increasingly vulnerable to climatic conditions," said a 2019 report published by International Rivers, a non-governmental organisation campaigning for the environment and human rights.
One of the warning signs came last year, and emerged again in recent months, when the Mekong River, which normally conveys sediment-rich murky brown water, turned blue and began to dry up.
The blue colour of the water indicates less sediment, which experts and local communities blame on the dams in China and Laos.
The impact of a drying Mekong is severe for Vietnam. During the summer of last year, the Vietnamese government declared a state of emergency in the Mekong Delta, where people experienced extreme drought and salinity intrusion.
Lack of rain and increased water storage in upstream dams were among the suspected causes of the trouble in the Delta, which produces more than 50% of Vietnam's rice exports and 70% of its fruit and fish exports, according to the Stimson Center.
"Natural floods used to send that sediment across the Mekong Delta but upstream dams are severely reducing the ability of those floods to provide freshwater to the Mekong Delta," it said.
Ha Kim Ngoc, the ambassador of Vietnam to the US, told the East-West Center webinar that over 20 million Vietnamese depend on the Mekong River. Over US$1 billion was lost due to historic droughts that damaged crops in the Lower Mekong Basin in 2015, 2016 and 2019.
"This will happen more often if we fail to act quickly, especially in strengthening the governance of transboundary water resources. Therefore, all riparian states must share the responsibility to utilise and manage transboundary water resources in a sustainable manner," said Mr Ngoc.
Effective transboundary river governance will be essential if the Mekong countries are to achieve inclusive and sustainable development and close the development gap left by past hydropower dams.
However, the issue has recently turned into a contest between China and the United States, the two superpowers that have been seeking to increase their presence in the Mekong region. Both have rival bodies working on transboundary river governance: Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) and the Mekong-US Partnership.
Founded in 2016, LMC emphasised prosperity sharing, sustainable development and narrowing the development gaps among the six member states -- China and the five Mekong countries. China pledged more than $12 billion of government-backed concessional loans, export credits and cooperation to build capacity through infrastructure and industrial projects.
The Mekong-US Partnership was launched in September last year, based on previous cooperation under the Lower Mekong Initiative that began in 2009. The new initiative received little attention from the administration of Donald Trump, who had not shown much interest in Southeast Asia throughout his term.
But soon after the administration of President Joe Biden took over the White House, Washington revived efforts to engage with the region, with more attention devoted to the Mekong to fend off overreach from China.
Under the rival bodies, both China and the US will support sharing of water data on separate platforms. China has pledged to share year-round water data with the Mekong River Commission, while the US government has partly funded the Mekong Dam Monitor, an open online platform run by the Stimson Center using satellite data to track reservoir levels in China and other countries.
Fishers inspect their catch in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. (Photo: Simon Dannhauer)
"More sharing of hydrological and water quality data is a step in the right direction," said Carl Middleton, director of the Center for Social Development Studies in the Faculty of Political Science at Chulalongkorn University.
"But water data sharing isn't the end point. It is actually the starting point of something far more important, which is accountable water governance, especially across borders."
Speaking during a panel on the Mekong dam held by SEA Junction, he questioned how data sharing will benefit people living along the river, such as local communities that are trying to adapt to the changing water flows. There has to be more of a point to the exercise beyond being a contest between two superpowers.
He also urged all relevant parties to promote unconstrained and open discussions on the future and solutions for the Mekong River, rather than just talking about the problems.
"I don't think that any solutions could be without China," said Mr Middleton. "Ultimately, it has to involve all the countries along the river."
In the quest to find solutions, local communities in downstream countries have formed a lower Mekong people's council to ensure their voices are heard. They hope to establish a mechanism to negotiate with states on managing the river based on a sustainable and inclusive development framework.
The move results from decades of disappointment with state-led development policies that have overlooked the impact of dams on livelihoods and sidelined local community voices in development decisions.
"Local communities should be at the centre and the ones that drive the Mekong development agenda. This is not a matter of choosing between China and the US. It's a matter of their livelihoods," said Premrudee Daoroung, a coordinator with Project Sevana, a civil society group that has monitored Mekong development for over two decades.
Water data has always been available, she said, but it has been in the hands of states and powerful actors who did not share it with the people.
"It is the time for the people to use their direct experiences from dealing with the crisis [caused by the dams], in combination with the facts from the data, to better the situation and ensure the future protection of the Mekong and the people."