Mekong River Faces Existential Threat from Chinese Dams

11 Chinese dams upstream are wrecking havoc on local communities' livelihood and the environment.

The Mekong River provides water, food, income and energy security for a population of about 70 million people, whose daily existence is closely linked to the Mekong, and for whom the staple diet is rice, fish and other aquatic animals.  

However, the many dams along the Mekong River, especially in the Chinese region of the Upper Mekong River Basin, has changed the natural flow, and water levels and quality, with disastrous consequences both for the environment and people.  And experts have sounded the alarm on the eventual collapse of the ecosystem in the Mekong basin.

The Mekong, one of the world’s longest waterways, runs about 2,500 miles from its source in the Tibetan Plateau in China, and winding its way through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it flows into the South China Sea.  The banks of the fast-moving river are lined with crops, grazing livestock and fishing boats

According to the Mekong River Commission, the Mekong contains the world’s third most diverse fish population, with 1,148 species, and the inland fisheries of the Lower Mekong Basin is the world’s largest, with the total fish catch estimated at 2.3 million tons worth US$11 billion per year. 

Experts believed that the construction and operation of China’s 11 dams within its border on the Upper Mekong is having devastating impacts on downstream communities, leading to extreme flooding and droughts that decimated fish spawning areas, crops and livestock.  For example, experts blamed China’s dams for contributing to a historic drought crisis in 2019 where water levels in the Mekong River fell to their lowest in more than 100 years. 

As a reference of the scale and size of the Chinese dams, the Xiaowan dam is the third tallest dam in the world with a dam wall rising nearly 300 meters in height.  The Nuozhadu dam has a massive storage capacity of 40,046 million cubic meters.  

Also, it is illuminating that Chinese communist officials did not find it ethical and necessary, before construction started, to consult their counterparts in countries through which the Mekong flows downstream of China.  

Moreover, China plans to deepen the Mekong River for use as a superhighway for the transport of commercial cargo to Mekong countries.  This controversial plan will put further strain on the ecosystem and local communities.

There are also another 11 dams, many of them financed by Chinese companies, which are either planned, under construction or built within the Lower Mekong basin. This overall rapid expansion of hydropower threatens all countries who share the Lower Mekong Basin, with downstream Cambodia and Vietnam being at the greatest risk.  

Mekong River faces existential threat from Chinese dams
Fisherman’s livelihood affected by upstream dams. Si Phan Don, Laos, July 13, 2014. Photo credit: iStock/ Photogoo.

The loss of fishing ground and farmland has driven many communities to resettle as a result and this internal displacement has opened up many opportunities for criminal syndicates to exploit, for example, in the areas of drug trafficking, human trafficking and other organized crimes, which undermines regional stability and economic development.  Additionally, with their basic subsistence gone, many local communities have to rely on increased food imports from China.  

The Mekong River Commission warned that the Lower Mekong basin has 40 percent fewer fish than it did 10 years ago.  As the population for this region is predicted to grow to over 100 million by 2025, dependence on fisheries will increase. If productivity declines, or if the fisheries are contaminated with industrial waste, the consequences would be severe.

On top of the devastating consequences of the dams, the Mekong has to face with basin development, expansion of irrigated agriculture, building of flood control and protection infrastructure, water resources development projects, and climate change. 

Relative to other contemporary regional flashpoints like the South China Sea dispute, the Mekong River is often treated as secondary.  Be that as it may, the Mekong River issue affects not only the countries involved but also the wider region with regards to environmental, socio-economic, security and geopolitical considerations.  Therefore, the Mekong subregion has the potential to be the next battleground in great power rivalry and become the new flashpoint in Southeast Asia. 

Photo credit: iStock/Manos Fikaris. Xiaowan arch dam in Lancang (Mekong) river, Yunnan province, China.

Lee Kok Leong

Lee Kok Leong

Kok Leong, executive editor, has overall editorial responsibility for the direction and focus of Maritime Fairtrade. He has two decades of working experiences, including holding senior regional roles in business-to-business (B2B) print and online publications. He enjoys his work as a journalist, and regards it as a calling.

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