Mekong hurt by sweet talk

Mekong hurt by sweet talk

When a regional grouping or cooperation framework marks its anniversary, it's typical that respective members, through the government or the Foreign Affairs Ministry, send a congratulatory note.

The Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (MLC) framework that links Mekong riparian countries, namely China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar Vietnam and Thailand is no exception. The MLC was conceived and pushed by China, with Thailand's support, and celebrates its fifth year this month. The upper part of the river is called Lancang.

Sending Thailand's congratulatory note on behalf of the Thai government this week was Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Affairs Minister Don Pramudwinai. He profusely praised the framework's successes in the areas of connectivity, production capacity, water resources, cross-border economic development, agriculture and poverty reduction.

The foreign affairs minister gave high regard to cooperation on water resources that was elevated to ministerial level in 2019 and in particular commended China for remaining "committed to sharing year-round hydrological data with MLC member states". The data sharing is accorded with two MoUs the Thai cabinet gave the nod to in October last year.

It's understandable to a certain extent that this kind of note will always be somewhat saccharine, but at the very least, the minister could, and should, have referenced some of the challenges faced with regard to water development along an international river that stretches about 4,900 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau in China to Vietnam. It is well known that China, as an upstream state, is racing to build more and more dams that adversely affect the water ecology, causing trouble for downstream states, including local communities in Thailand. Excessive development has tremendously hurt the river, which is known for its diversity second only to the Amazon.

For years, the Mekong has lost many of its natural currents and flows, having been "tamed" by dam builders and developers who widened the waterway to accommodate large vessels. Needless to say, the negative changes to the river have intensified poverty in riparian states.

These negative consequences serve as a reminder of opportunities missed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha when he received a senior Chinese diplomat during a courtesy call earlier this year as the water level dropped to an unprecedented low.

The problem had been traced to a 50% cut in discharge further upstream at the Jinghong dam in China's Yunnan province in order to bolster electricity production. It was reported that China had notified the MRC which was forced to later step up calls for Beijing to share all of its water data.

Yet, the Thai premier did not mention a single word about any of this during that meeting.

Indeed, China has a big role in the framework given that it has financially contributed to most projects, if not all, under the MLC. But this does not necessarily mean the superpower should enjoy a free hand.

As Pianporn Deetes, campaigns and communications director for the International Rivers' Southeast Asia programme, rightly put it: Data sharing won't work without political will to co-manage the Mekong with respect to the ecological needs downstream.

Even though Mr Don did not mention the need for water co-management in his March 23 note, he and the Thai government should feel obliged to develop the political will to preserve the river's ecological balance.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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