What happens in Mekong doesn’t stay in Mekong

The Mekong River crisis has implications for the whole of Southeast Asia.

The Mekong River ecosystem faces the prospect of irreversible damage because of the cumulative effects of increased numbers of upstream dams, mainly in China, and human activities like riverbed mining, deforestation and infrastructure development.  

Add in to the mix climate change, which exacerbates the current situation, and there is a perfect storm of destruction staring down at the Mekong.  The consequences of the collapse are huge as the effects are felt not only in the five riparian countries, i.e., Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, but throughout Southeast Asia as well.

China, which owns 11 dams along upstream Mekong within its border, has been criticized for operating the dams in secrecy without much regard for water flow downstream.  For example, Brian Eyler, an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region and specializes in China’s economic cooperation with Southeast Asia, said that during the 2019 monsoon, China’s dams totally prevented the Mekong mainstream from filling itself along the Thai-Lao border.  

Eyler’s study also revealed that China has been restricting more and more water over time, particularly during the monsoon seasons, since its behemoth Nuozhadu Dam went online in stages between 2012 and 2014. 

Also, his study found out that due to the dams’ operation, extreme floods happened out of nowhere along the Thai-Lao border during the dry season, which sometimes caused the river level to jump several meters overnight and caused millions of dollars in damages to local riverside communities. 

The Mekong is Southeast Asia’s “fish basket” and “rice bowl” and embodies both the region’s heart and lifeblood.  For thousands of years, a healthy Mekong has nourished civilizations, and nurtured and provided for generations of local communities, offering an abundance of fish and a reliable source of freshwater to irrigate farmlands.  Be that as it may, it has come to pass that the Mekong River, which is now not giving enough life-sustaining water, may well be on its way to demise.

Often, the Mekong crisis is viewed through the lens of the environmental destruction and food security but it can affect national security and has geopolitical implications too.

Food insecurity

Over the last two decades, the hydropower dams altered the natural flow of the Mekong River, resulting in unpredictable droughts and floods, low water levels in the dry seasons, and reduced river sediments and nutrients, which are essential to agricultural and fishery productivity, with radical consequences for the population and biodiversity.

The Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency that works with Mekong country governments to jointly manage shared water and natural resources, stated in a 2018 study that due to the dams, fish stock is predicted to fall by 40 percent and downstream sediment flow to reduce by 97 percent.

The Mekong River carries a large amount of sediment and nutrients along its entire length, from the Upper Mekong River down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. These sediments are critical for the formation and stabilization of deltas.  According to the World Bank, the Mekong Delta, one of the most fertile regions in the world, produces half of Vietnam’s rice, 70 percent of its aquaculture, and one-third of its GDP.  

The nutrients sustain fish, plant and soil across the wider Mekong Basin, one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world, and support the agriculture and fishery economies of all the riparian countries.  

However, a vast amount of river sediments and nutrients is trapped behind the many dams along Mekong’s mainstream and tributaries.  The loss of sediments and nutrients, therefore, has direct negative implications on the amounts of fish catch and crop output, mainly rice cultivation, and affects the livelihoods of the 70 million people living in the Mekong Basin.  

The Mekong River Commission report further stated that the dams block the natural migratory pathways of fish.  Upstream migration is hindered when the fish cannot get over the dams’ spillway or through turbines.  Even those that manage to pass through may still be killed by the force of current and sudden changes in pressure, or barotrauma.  Hydropower can also prevent downstream migration, with larvae and adult fish unable to cross the dam itself or navigate large bodies of standing water created by the dams.

The Mekong’s wider biodiversity relies heavily on the natural and predictable flooding and receding, or pulse, of the river’s waters.  Fish as well as beach-nesting birds are seriously impacted by unseasonable flooding caused by dams and water releases.   

Additionally, the dams also deprived downstream areas of sediments which are needed to build up marshes and wetlands that act as a buffer against rising seas.

The Mekong River produces 4.5 million metric tons of fish every year, which contributes 80 percent of the protein consumed in the region’s households.  However, with the decline in the Mekong’s fisheries due to the dams and other factors, which is predicted to cost US$23 billion by 2040, Southeast Asian governments will have to grapple with a food security problem and to find alternative sources to replace the lost protein.  

Fisherman affected by upstream dams. Si Phan Don, Lao, July 13, 2014. Photo credit: iStock/Photogoo.

Societal upheaval

This precarious food insecurity scenario may widen the already existing income inequality gap between rich and developing Southeast Asian countries when they have to compete for a limited source of fish, which may result in regional instability.

The Mekong River is also critical for growing rice, which provides more than half of the daily caloric intake in countries across Southeast Asia.  The riparian countries are among the world’s biggest rice exporters, including to many other Southeast Asian countries.  Therefore, a drastic drop in rice export is definitely a cause for region-wide concern.

Another potential timebomb is the problem of unemployment of the huge numbers of fishing and farming communities being displaced by the Mekong crisis.  With the loss of their traditional livelihood, there may be a mass migration to the cities in search of jobs which in turn may cause other social problems.  

Furthermore, this forced displacement may also open the door for transnational criminal networks to engage in human trafficking and entice affected people to illegally migrate to neighboring rich countries in search of a better future. 

National security

In August 2020, two consequential events took place which represented a jostling for political influence between two global powers:  the inaugural Mekong-U.S. Partnership Ministerial Meeting, and China’s third Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders’ Meeting.  Controlling the Mekong will give either the U.S. or China the means to exert power over the whole of Southeast Asia, vis-à-vis by having a voice in ASEAN through the control of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand.

In such a case where, external powers are trying to gain a presence in the region, the unity of ASEAN will be threatened.  As geopolitical tension between the U.S and China heats up, countries are forced to choose sides.  There can be no return to sitting on the fence as in the past where Southeast Asian countries played both sides, depending on the U.S. for security and China for economic gains.

Photo credit: iStock/ vinhdav. Chau Doc, Vietnam, Oct 13, 2018. Villagers working on rice field.

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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