By Chok Tsering
There has been a lot of discussion in recent times about the pros and cons of large-scale dams in the Mekong region. The construction of dams in the Mekong River has direct impact on ecological, security and economic development of the neighbouring Southeast Asian countries. This article gives a brief account of security and economic initiatives taken by China and the Mekong River Commission in the recent times. It also examines a range of concerns of the indigenous people and ecological damage posed by the existing and proposed large dams in the Mekong region and how China is expanding its economy in the neighbouring Southeast Asian nations through this region.
The Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia, and the only river in all of Asia shared by six nations, namely China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. It has an estimated length of 4,880 kms, originates in the Tibetan Plateau and flows through the Yunnan province of China. This region is famously known for illegal trade; especially in narcotic. It also happens to be a major trade route for these countries and the China-ASEAN free trade zone. The lower Mekong River supports almost 60 million people who depend on them for their livelihood.
In the recent times, China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand agreed to take joint action to crack down on cross-border crime and secure transportation along the Mekong River. They also agreed to strengthen co-operation on the basis of mutual respect for sovereignty, equality and to resolve the problems through direct consultation with each other. This happened to be the first joint patrol law enforcement team of the four countries to safeguard the international waterway. The Mekong River Commission’s annual meeting in December also emphasized on the need for further study on the sustainable development and management of the Mekong River including impact from mainstream hydropower development projects. The Mekong River Commission is the only regional inter-governmental organization charged to consult on the river’s future. During Xi Jinping’s three day visit to Thailand, he also prioritized the coordination and maintenance of transportation order on the Mekong River and strengthening of future ties with Thailand.
Despite the frequency of all these co-operative summits and high level visit, there are a lot of loopholes that might affect the overall development of the region, in particular the middle and lower riparian Southeast Asian nations as well as the inhabitants in the region. For instance, Laos’ government agreed to delay the construction of a US $ 3.7 billion hydropower dam (Xayaburi) on the Mekong River because the inhabitants of the region and environmentalists have argued that these dams would have a devastating effect on a wide variety of fish species and affect the livelihoods of the millions of downstream people. The Xayaburi Dam is expected to be the first mainstream dam in the lower Mekong. This case gives the fact that projected dams do affect inhabitants in the region. Furthermore, impact is often exaggerated by the difference between resident peoples’ ways of life and the conditions under which they are expected to resettle.
At the same time, China has been building a series of dams on the upper Mekong especially in Yunnan province. They say that the dams in Yunnan will have a positive environmental impact and will help control flooding in the downstream. However, the downstream countries have expressed that the dams will severely restrict the migration of fish and will have drastic impacts on the hydrological flow of the river. They are still eleven more proposed dams on the lower Mekong region. These dams threaten the complex eco-system of the region.
Since there is no international treaty governing the use of trans-boundary Rivers, it seems that China is in a dominant position to control the Mekong’s headwater. China has focused narrowly on the economic development of the region rather than its environmental and sustainable development, and has also failed to address ground realities such as the loss of livelihoods of people inhabiting the area. At the same time, China has never joined Mekong River Commission and it still refuses to join. So it is a vivid example of China’s disregard for its neighbours, who are scared to speak out because of China’s economic might. Therefore, the absence of a cooperative arrangement in this region might make inter-country water competition a major security risk and ecological instabilities in the region. The Mekong River could be the region’s next hot spot if there are more such schemes coming up in the region.
Countries of the Mekong basin should opt for joint river management for sustainable development of the region and prevent the occurrence of illegal trade as well as enact legally binding agreements for sharing water resources and developing the economic potential of the river.
Research Intern, CRP, IPCS
email: [email protected]