The mighty Mekong River is the heart and soul of Southeast Asia. Millions of livelihoods are linked to it, especially in terms of food, energy and water security. Besides giving birth to one of the planet's most biodiverse river basins, the transboundary nature of the river -- which begins its journey in the Tibetan plateau and flows 2,140km through China before entering downstream Southeast Asia -- means it is facing a threat to its existence like none before: hydropolitics.
In recent years, historic low water levels in the Mekong has devastated communities like Cambodia's Tonle Sap, once home to one of the most productive freshwater fisheries on Earth. But Tonle Sap isn't alone. Similar images of dry riverbeds, dead fish and destroyed farms have been shared by communities across Southeast Asia, even leading Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha to mobilise the army to aid the drought-hit North and Northeast in 2019.
Last year, two reports provided different accounts on why the Mekong is under threat. While the first study by US-backed consultancy Eyes On The Earth blamed China's dam activity upstream for the decrease in river levels during the wet and dry season as well irregular fluctuations, a study by China's Tsinghua University held weather patterns and El Nino responsible for causing drought and hence low water levels. Political motivations are likely to have ensured the results of the studies were used to push a certain narrative; it is a game of water diplomacy that has undermined cross-border water governance and affected millions of people in the process.
As concerns continued to grow over the drying of the Mekong, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang last September pledged the country would begin sharing hydrological data with downstream nations throughout the year instead of just the wet season, a welcome move.
But last week, locals in Chiang Saen in the North woke up to an unwelcome New Year surprise as they noted the water level in the Mekong had dropped again. The Mekong Dam Monitor, formed in December, provided a clearer picture. By using remote sensors and satellite imagery, it confirmed the water level had dropped by "more than one metre" between Jan 2 and Jan 4 due to the filling of a reservoir at Jinghong Dam in Yunnan province on Dec 31.
On Jan 5, after the data was made public, Beijing finally notified Thailand's National Water Command Centre that Jinghong dam would reduce the water discharge rate by 47% between Jan 5-24 to "maintain its electricity grid" (perhaps to meet demand after widespread blackouts in China have been reported after a ban on Australian coal imports), contradicting its earlier promise to share hydrological data and inform downstream nations of disruptive dam operations in advance.
What is clear is that a healthy Mekong requires joint cooperation among all the nations it runs through. However, the presence of state and non-state actors and different agendas has made this a difficult task.
At present, two agencies, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC), are spearheading efforts to heal the river but their approach is one dimensional, focusing only on improving drought forecasting to prevent low water levels. Although this is important, urgency is also needed in curtailing the negative impacts of dam activity and hydropower projects on this fragile ecosystem.
Independent agencies, who have conducted their own studies, have noted that unprecedented dam activity has caused sediment starvation, which used to flow downstream and fertilise the soil and influence fish reproduction. In fact, the impact of dams is crystal clear as the waters of the Mekong are becoming clearer downstream from its usual reddish-brown hue.
Yet the operation and construction of additional dams continues unabated not only in China but also Laos, which is planning to build a total dams as part of its "Battery of Asia" strategy to export power, despite there being no clear buyer (Thailand already has a surplus of power and Covid-19 has caused demand to fall further, according to the Energy Ministry).
Clearly, dams are not going away, so improvements must be made in current processes to prevent a repeat of conditions seen over the past years.
To put it bluntly, there is a need for a process based on dialogue, reciprocity, and trust between all partners. If China is serious about achieving its "Asian community of common destiny", which promotes regional peace, development, and prosperity, it must improve its lines of communication. Meanwhile, downstream nations must come together and act as one counterbalance to China's strategic dominance upstream.
It is only after establishing a rules-based approach can there be accountability and an alternative outlook for the future of the Mekong and the region.