Water resource management of the Mekong River is a source of differences and conflicts of interest between Mekong countries and extra-regional powers. What happens upstream significantly affects the downstream areas, and data sharing about the river is varied. Unfortunately, the states sharing this international river are not equal in terms of power and there are ongoing challenges for providing consistent water management to benefit local riparian communities.
The world's ninth largest river, the Mekong River, traverses six nations along its approximately 5,000 km pathway from its source on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau to the South China Sea. The Mekong River as a 'common river' remains as a connection to the primary livelihood pursuits of agriculture, fishing, and forestry of a predominately rural population of the riparian countries and grew into the confluence region of the ‘Powers’ and the locals as well. The Powers are both extra-regional powers like China, India, and Japan, and the US. The Mekong River is vital for both riparian countries and extra-regional powers. This is due to the precious value of the resource itself and the potential competition or cooperation among actors and stakeholders involved in regional development regarding infrastructure, food and energy security, climate change, and disaster resilience.
The once mighty and resourceful Mekong is in a critical situation. The Mekong River is maltreated; the lands are mismanaged; unconscious development projects in the region are cluttered. All in all, the people are suffering and their voices need to be heard. The Mekong's floodplains and 37 wetlands sustain about 61 million people living in the five countries of Cambodia, Laos, Burma/Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand. However, the development activities in the Upper Mekong Basin and unconscious development projects in the lower Mekong have challenged regional stability and the balance of power in the region.
A ‘Theater of Competition’ in Mekong partnerships: Many agreements but restricted data sharing
With solid cooperation frameworks with external powers, relatively more than any other subregions globally, the Mekong becomes a new theater of competition between the greater powers while ASEAN is gradually losing its central role. The Mekong-U.S. Partnership (2020), the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (2016), the Mekong-Japan Cooperation (2008), the Mekong-ROK (Republic of Korea) Cooperation (2010), the Lower Mekong Initiative (2009), and the Mekong-Ganga Cooperation (2000) are the proof of robust cooperation frameworks the Mekong region has been part of over the past few decades. For the United States, the Mekong region is not only the hub of the Indo-Pacific Strategy but a fundamental part of its engagement policy with ASEAN.
As an ongoing essential link between China and the countries downstream, the Mekong region is China's strategic backyard that China has generally taken an active part in multilateral cooperation frameworks in the region. The Tokyo Strategy 2018 is proof of the strategic partnership Japan has with the Mekong countries. This strategy comprises three pillars: vibrant and compelling connectivity, a people-centered society, and a ‘green’ Mekong. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) are the two key intergovernmental institutions working closely on state-to-state transboundary water governance. The Upper Mekong Basin countries, comprising Burma/Myanmar and China, have very different roles regarding Mekong issues. China is one of the key stakeholders in the Mekong, while Burma/Myanmar is inactive.
About 234 km of the Mekong River flows through Shan State of Burma/Myanmar, in which more than 22,000 indigenous peoples made up of Akha, Shan, Lahu, Sam Tao, and Em communities rely on the river for their living. The drought and low water level caused challenges to these communities as well. Most of the communities work for Chinese logging companies coming to the area. However, the low river levels have made it very difficult for logging so river transport comes to a standstill, resulting in many residents losing their jobs and income. Severe droughts have also affected the way of living of these indigenous communities. The successive military junta’s relations with China is one of the primary reasons that Burma/Myanmar is not as outspoken as the other riparian countries. For the past five years, Burma/Myanmar has played a minimal part in Mekong processes, attending occasional official meetings. Deteriorating drug issues has overshadowed the alarming environmental issues in the region. The drug issue is also a conundrum, though the implicit assumption is that the stakeholders are both local militia and corrupt officials in the country.
With an open and accessible algorithm, stakeholders have to judge data validity fairly and evolve their due plans and aspirations of the Mekong. Except for occasional maintenance announcements, China has failed to share much of its physical data on the Mekong, leading others interested in its dam operations to develop ways to measure and estimate impacts on the Lancang, the upper part of the Mekong River. In the lower Mekong, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has been sharing data of dam operations with concerned stakeholders. Through the EGAT public website, Thailand and Laos, through EDL-Gen, share hourly data for tributary dams with volume and reservoir level physical observations. This information is beneficial for identifying where water is and how dams are being operated. No such data sharing comes from Burma/Myanmar yet, as Burma/Myanmar is not more than just a dialogue partner to the MRC.
Focusing on China's 11 mainstream dams and looking at the indicators surrounding 16 dams in the downstream countries, the Mekong Dam Monitor of the Stimson Center produces weekly estimates of reservoir levels. The virtual gauge measurements translate into weekly operations curves for each dam with peer-reviewed processes, and a high degree of satisfaction and high frequency of usage of key government stakeholders downstream. Within few reliable sources, the Eyes on Earth and the Tsinghua University study are worth reviewing. Both have shared a similar model and very similar results, however with different interpretations. The Tsinghua study, with its in-situ dataset, claims upstream water restrictions and dry season releases during the Mekong's traditional wet season have helped flood reduction and drought relief. The report from Eyes on Earth alerts that this kind of river regulation is hugely harmful downstream.
Development trade-offs and the effects of limited water flows
Beyond the regional connectivity and cooperation with the Powers, cross-sectoral implications of the water, food and energy sectors require vigilant consideration. Development projects and investment for water access, energy supplies, food security, and other development activities are interrelated with unintended impacts, especially to the grassroots communities relying on the Mekong. The Bonn 2011 conference on the Water, Energy and Food Security Nexus stressed that "understanding the nexus is needed to develop policies, strategies and investments to exploit synergies and mitigate trade-offs among these three development goals with the active participation of and among government agencies, the private sector and civil society. In this way, unintended consequences can be avoided."
The fluvial continuum and hydro system in the Mekong River incorporate further conversations about water, sediment, nutrients and species substantially moving from upstream gradients to downstream deltas. Anthropogenic activities along the river have disrupted the natural river flow and altered its hydrological characteristics. Both the active water sectors, which are water supplies (domestic and industrial), irrigated agriculture, hydropower, and flood management and mitigation, and the passive water sectors, which are for fisheries, navigation and river works, tourism and water-related recreation, and riverine environments in the Mekong region, are in a critical situation now.
The local communities in the lower Mekong are bewildered whenever the Mekong's annual floods are behind schedule and the locals have questioned the thinking behind water management. Dams, in general, are not problematic if appropriately managed. For riparian communities, the Mekong for years, with its high river levels in the wet season and low river levels in the dry season, has been the mightiest in a natural way, with no state's particular control. However, dams in China and along the Mekong River are not managed in the right way. China's 11 upstream dams restrict about 20 billion cubic meters of water during the wet season as their reservoirs replenish their active storage against the nature of the river. Nevertheless, when the river level is higher during the dry season due to upstream dam releases, the river level is never high enough to cause a productive flood. The most vociferous about mismanagement of the Mekong River are the riparian communities that face sudden daily fluctuations in river levels for more than two decades, and this has annihilated their livelihoods.
Fishing for livelihoods amid drying opportunities and endangering species
The Mekong basin contains a diverse assemblage of freshwater fish species, which provides primary animal protein consumed in the riparian countries of the Mekong. A longtime Mekong lover and rights activist, Mr. Niwat Roykew (Khun Krutee), lamented, "The Mekong is our life, and harming the Mekong is the threat to our existence." Development projects which have not fully encompassed their expected impacts have gradually killed not only the aquatic ecosystem system but the riparian communities of the Mekong. The voices of the people of the Mekong have been loud enough, yet it is not heard and has not been translated into policies. Their demand is simple – it is for conscious development projects with proper procedures of notification, prior consultation and agreement, and for keeping the natural ecosystem of the Mekong.
Approximately 80% of all animal protein consumed in Cambodia is freshwater fish. The largest commercial fishery in the Mekong River Basin is Tonle Sap, the Great Lake and the heartbeat of Cambodia, and it functions as a critical natural resource base that provides Cambodian people with animal protein and livelihoods. A high flood season pulse, which creates vast spawning and feeding grounds for hundreds of fish species, drives the reversal of the Tonle Sap Lake and floods the Mekong Delta, which in turn feeds the people of the region with a bounty of fish and agricultural yields. When the river level is higher during the dry season due to upstream dam releases, the river level is never high enough to cause a productive flood. So the water mostly runs its course down through the mainstream and out into the ocean, providing minimal social or economic benefit.
In Vietnam, the Mekong Delta is one of the most productive fishing zones and for fish farming. Dry season flow increases are the lowest in the Mekong Delta, where, conversely, the dry season irrigation demand is the highest. The Mekong River naturally conveys sediment-rich murky brown water, however this turned blue and began to dry up in recent years that the government of Vietnam even declared a state of emergency in the Mekong Delta as the people experienced extreme drought and salinity intrusion. Vietnam's Mekong Delta flood plain and especially the Plain of Reeds (Đồng Tháp Mười) are extremely hard hit. Floodplain artisanal fisheries and important Mekong mainstream cage-fish culture have also been adversely affected. The delta produces more than 50% of Vietnam's rice exports and approximately 70% of fruits and other aquatic animals (OAAs).
In Laos, almost 50% of the animal protein intake is from fish and OAAs. Around 4.5 million rural Lao people still rely on fish to complement what is lacking in their rice-based diet. A sudden daily fluctuation in river level in Chiang Saen in Thailand has hit the fishing communities hard. At least 60% of the water in the river at Chiang Saen comes from China – during the dry season. The research conducted by local people on the fish in the Mekong River along Chiang Saen to Wiang Kaen districts found that there were 96 fish species, and more than 50 fish species spawn in the tributaries. When the water was high, the water level in the tributaries would increase and flow into the wetlands to support biodiversity.
The unpredictable water control in the Upper Mekong Basin has overturned the annual flooding regulation of the Mekong that has severe impacts on all downstream livelihood, both human and other species. Endemic Mekong fish species, including those inhabiting the upper mainstream of the Mekong River, are threatened by extinction. During the dry season, China's water contributions are as high as 45% of the total flow as snowmelt from Yunnan and Tibet feed the river, while the downstream is experiencing low precipitation levels. During the regular wet season, the rains downstream are heavy enough that China's flow contribution is minimal, yet the water control in the upper basin still has an impact.
The ecosystem has its cycle: that the water level will rise in the rainy season, and that the Mekong River will stream into its various tributaries in the basin to spawn fish in the wetland areas. This natural process is damaged as water control and restrictions happen simultaneously. Eleven upstream dams restrict about 20 billion cubic meters of water during the wet season as their reservoirs replenish their active storage. Local birds and migratory birds have bred and laid eggs on the shoals and small islands in the dry season, but limited water release in the dry season endangers species along the Mekong. It also disturbs the kai, Mekong River weeds that grow, in the farms in the river shore in the dry season. Fish, crabs, prawns, seaweed and agricultural products are the primary source of living where unseasonal water control has diverted food from the mouths of local communities that depend on the river. Withholding and release of the water against the natural process also caused the disappearance of the sediment in the river, and the once brown-colored river has turned into blue recently.
Seeking to redress issues within limited institutional coordination and jurisdiction
Water resource management of the Mekong River is a source of differences and conflicts of interest. This international river is ‘common’, yet under state sovereignty, resource governance has been a conundrum for the stakeholders because there are no water treaties or legally binding agreements that require the parties to share their data. In the 2nd Mekong Dialogue hosted by the Mekong Program of Mae Fah Luang University, Khun Krutee unfortunately outlined that "the laws cannot cover the Mekong River issues." One such example was the Administrative Court's dismissal of the case of Pak Beng Dam, initiated by the locals, but as the dam is located in Laos, it was beyond Thailand's sovereignty rights to rule over it. The unequal spatial and temporal distribution of flow and the lack of robust institutional coordination among the countries sharing the Mekong have increasingly devastated the normal riparian communities. Threats to their existence now require urgent attention. The states sharing this international river are not equal in terms of power. A rights-based system is not yet institutionalized in the region in terms of fair and inclusive participation, and strong state-society relations are lacking.
Environmental degradation and disaster that negatively affect local people's livelihoods are anthropogenic. Would more than a hundred dams along the Mekong River allocate the need of the locals? It is not feasible to assess the impacts of every dam and irrigation project because they are various in size and type and subject to variable data availability and reliability. Coming at a cost, development projects such as dam construction and navigation channel improvements have impacted the environment and the social and cultural fabric of the Mekong. Procedures of notification, prior consultation and agreement with riparian communities are indispensable in managing the issues. Sufficient data sharing of hydrological and water quality would be the starting point of accountable water governance across borders. To enable such initiatives, all relevant parties, both the rights-holders and duty-bearers, must be able to have unconstrained and open discussions on the future Mekong River with a solution-oriented focus. The combination of firsthand experiences of locals dealing with the issues, in a sufficient and transparent way, will be the immediate solution to saving the Mekong.
Dr. Khen Suan Khai is the Head of Mekong Program, Asian Research Center for International Development and Lecturer at School of Social Innovation, Mae Fah Luang University, Chiang Rai, Thailand.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.