Can regional cooperation secure the Mekong's future?
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Can regional cooperation secure the Mekong's future?

A fisherman casts his nets at the headwaters of the Mekong River in Qinghai province, northwestern China. (File photo via International Rivers)
A fisherman casts his nets at the headwaters of the Mekong River in Qinghai province, northwestern China. (File photo via International Rivers)

Leaders of the six riparian countries of the Lancang-Mekong, namely China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, are to meet Wednesday and Thursday in Phnom Penh for the 2nd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders' Meeting. On the agenda is endorsement of a Five-year Plan of Action and a declaration outlining commitment to cooperation on key issues, including shared governance of the Lancang-Mekong River.

The meeting -- and China's leadership role within it -- comes at a critical time for the Mekong River; the lifeblood of the region and its people. The Mekong urgently needs meaningful cooperation that involves all riparian countries and gives due priority to environmental protection and the human rights of river-basin communities. This includes effective measures to address the transboundary impacts of hydropower dams and other developments on the basin.

Infrastructure development is escalating within the Lancang-Mekong Basin, with profound implications for the future of the river system. Two large-scale hydropower projects are under construction on the Lower Mekong mainstream -- the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams -- and a third, the Pak Beng Dam, poised to commence development. Eleven dams are planned for the Lower Mekong mainstream and over a hundred more on tributaries.

China has already built its own series of eight dams upstream on the Lancang or upper Mekong, and plans 20 more in Yunnan, Qinghai and Tibet. In the past two decades, the dams upstream have drastically altered the river's natural flood-drought cycle and blocked sediment, affecting ecosystems and fisheries downstream. Communities in Thailand and Laos have reported impacts for years, with no formal acknowledgement or redress.

Planned dam construction in the Mekong Basin is predicted to irreversibly alter the basin's riverine ecosystems, converting the river into a series of stagnant reservoirs. A study released in November by the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) shows that dam construction, together with riverbed mining and climate change, has caused a drastic reduction in sediment and nutrient transport in the Mekong Basin, with severe implications for ecosystems, agriculture, fisheries and local livelihoods. The report affirms the findings of previous studies, including Vietnam's Mekong Delta Study and the MRC-commissioned Strategic Environment Assessment, warning of the severe and irreversible impacts of existing and proposed dams. The SEI study found if all planned dams are built, sediment transport to the Mekong Delta will be cut to just 4% of current levels -- a critical issue that has not been factored into dam planning, risk assessment and construction to date.

Despite their cumulative impacts, the dams are being assessed and approved project-by-project, without basin-wide assessments and planning, following the interests of developers at the expense of local populations. Chinese firms are involved in six mainstream dams and many more projects basin-wide. The Lower Mekong mainstream dams have not followed sound international practice for assessing, avoiding and mitigating harmful social and environmental impacts.

China's lack of full participation in the Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- which includes the four lower Mekong countries as members -- has prevented the MRC from addressing the downstream impacts of Lancang dams. The MRC and its procedures have also proven largely ineffective to date in preventing ill-planned and destructive dam-building within the Lower Mekong Basin, and in promoting the sustainable management and conservation of the river for the benefit of all riparian countries.

China's role in the LMC presents an opportunity to ensure effective cooperation over the entire basin and establish stronger procedures to ensure its sustainable management. While water governance is a key objective of the LMC, its mandate is much broader than that of the MRC, extending to cooperation in areas such as connectivity, cross-border investment, and poverty-reduction, affording potential for greater influence over decisions on hydropower and infrastructure projects.

China's leaders are prioritising the protection and restoration of rivers domestically and have espoused a commitment to environmental sustainability within the LMC. At the same time, one of the ways in which China is furthering trade and connectivity is through a controversial proposal to blast Mekong rapids in Thailand to allow year-round passage of 500-tonne commercial barges from Yunnan. The project's predicted destruction of riverine ecosystems has sparked extensive opposition and protests among riparian communities. Recent reports that China is willing to listen to public concerns and amend or cancel the project are welcome but remain unverified.

The LMC provides a platform for China to demonstrate leadership in the shared governance and sustainable management of the Lancang–Mekong River and for all riparian countries to require express commitments are put into practice. A key step would be for China to join Vietnam in ratifying the UN Watercourses Convention and encourage other riparian state parties to also ratify. This would be an important means of strengthening the standards governing the Lancang-Mekong and managing transboundary impacts, in line with international law.

Secondly, China must work with downstream countries and river communities to coordinate the operations of existing Lancang infrastructure to deliver environmental flows downstream, supporting ecosystem functions and river community livelihoods. This would help address the drastic impacts of hydropower dams on downstream countries and extend accountability to those affected.

Thirdly, the LMC's broad mandate and links to China' Belt and Road Initiative offer the potential to ensure conservation of the Mekong by promoting and financing alternatives to large-scale and destructive hydropower projects.

Globally, the tide is turning on large-scale hydropower, with growing recognition of the harmful impacts of dams on critical freshwater systems and local communities. Last week, senior Brazilian officials indicated the importance of a policy shift away from large-scale hydropower in the Amazon Basin. The announcement cited concerns of indigenous peoples and environmentalists. For decades these groups have pointed to the massive adverse social and environmental impacts of large dams on a critical and iconic river system. The Mekong deserves the same recognition and priority accorded to its protection.

Emerging technologies mean renewable energy alternatives to large hydropower and fossil fuels are increasingly cost-competitive and feasible for Lower Mekong countries. China is showing global leadership in building solar and wind power capacity at home, and has financing and technological expertise that is sorely needed to drive the energy revolution in Lower Mekong countries.

Effective regional cooperation on the shared governance of the Lancang-Mekong Basin is critical. Above all, it must recognise the ecological importance of the river and ensure participation of the region's peoples in key decisions over the river's future.

Maureen Harris is Southeast Asia Programme Director with International Rivers.

Maureen Harris

Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers

Maureen Harris is the Southeast Asia programme director at International Rivers.

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