Time to push China for real Mekong partnership
The Asean summit offers a great opportunity for Mekong riparian countries to press China, a major dialogue partner, on commitments for sustainable development of the region's most important river.
Leading the Chinese delegation is Premier Li Keqiang. He is to meet our prime minister Prayut Chan-o-cha to discuss a so-called strategic partnership while the Asean-China summit is to take place tomorrow.
As the upstream country, China has taken significant control over the Mekong. The country has already built 11 hydro-dams on the river and plans 17 more in years to come. In addition to dam building, China has turned sections of the river into a trade route for its vessels. To do so, it blasted rapids in areas known to be the habitats of indigenous Mekong fish, controlling water depth and volume to accommodate transportation of goods.
Adding to the strain are countries downstream, who are tapping the river with more hydro-dams and other projects.
The Mekong will eventually host nearly 40 dams. The latest, Xayaburi, this week became the first to begin operations on the lower Mekong, in Laos, amid a wave of protests over its feared impacts.
Overuse of the river has brought radical fluctuations in its water level.
Downstream communities who are dependent on the river complain loudly with each dramatic drop in level. China responds by releasing more water to ease their hardship, while at the same time using the media to ensure it controls the Mekong narrative. Yet, I see no real efforts to fix the problems in the long run.
Fisherfolk in Cambodia's Tonle Sap are among those hit hardest by the change in the river's ecology. During the dry season, the Tonle Sap River flows 147 kilometres southeast from Tonle Sap Lake to join the Mekong River near the capital of Phnom Penh. But in the monsoon season, from May to October, the Mekong floods and causes the water to back up into the Tonle Sap River, reversing its flow.
As the water level plunges, fish became scarce and locals suffer hardship from lost income. The dams upstream have exacerbated that suffering.
Poi Pet market on the Thai-Cambodian border offers a snapshot of the problem. Until recently, the market was a major trading post for fish between the two countries. But since dams began spawning on the upper Mekong, traders and fisherfolk have been complaining of dwindling fish stocks.
Prime Minister Prayut and fellow Asean leaders of riparian countries -- namely Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam -- must not allow this precious opportunity to pass them by. They should raise the the Mekong issues with their Chinese counterparts and lay foundations for deeper discussion to ensure the river is used in a sustainable and mutually beneficial way.
Without mutual benefits, the push for strategic partnership is meaningless.