The story of the Mekong

Over sixty million people live in the Lower Mekong Basin; across Laos, Thailand, Cambodia before reaching the fertile Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Almost half of this number live 15 kilometers within the river, including the millions settling in three of these four countries’ largest urban areas. Its massive fishing industry brings food to the dinner table for millions, while its water is used to irrigate both of the world’s largest and second-largest rice exporters, and despite a general trend towards land-based modes of transportation such as road and rail, an overall lack of sufficient infrastructure in the region means that the Mekong River continues to serve as the basin’s primary gateway to trade.

The warranted importance of Southeast Asia’s largest river towards regional food security and economic stability means that any physical alteration to the Mekong or its flow may jeopardize the livelihood of sixty-six million individuals. As the four countries mentioned above; as well as China – where the Mekong starts; continue to develop at a rate almost unmatched by any other region on Earth, the combined Mekong countries have increasingly looked towards exploiting the river’s natural resources to accelerate their economic development. In a historical pattern observed across industrializing nations, however, their desire to grow will most likely produce unsustainable development patterns that may altogether leave the Mekong worse off – and hampering, rather than supporting each country’s development in the long term. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), was therefore created by these four countries to provide solutions to co-manage and sustainably develop its water resources.

With this in mind, the single most discussed, and arguably the most unsustainable development pattern for the river lies in a chronic damming habit by upstream Mekong countries; China and Laos – which may substantially dry up the river.

Breaking point

For decades, the Mekong has continued to survive its three biggest threats – damming, overfishing, and sand mining; and that despite signs of an environmental crisis, the river has so far successfully warded off these threats of human overexploitation. In 2019, however, these signs became inherently clear as the monsoon season arrived much later than usual; instead of coming in May, monsoon rains did not reach the Mekong until mid-June and water in the Mekong fell to its lowest level since records began over 60 years ago.

This triggered a devastating drought that forced Cambodia into enduring months of electricity blackout as water levels were nowhere near enough to power its hydropower plants, while parts of the country endured up to a 90% decline in its annual fish catch. An environmental crisis is looming, and nowhere is this clearer than in Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake – the Tonle Sap. Its socio-economic importance to Cambodia is indisputable; the lake’s diverse ecosystem once maintained the Angkor civilization – the largest pre-industrial society in global history; and now serve as the country’s primary food supply as it supplies over 500,000 tons of fish every year. Normally, during the monsoon season, the lake expands from 2,700 square kilometers to over 16,000 kilometers. 2019’s late monsoon season, however, means that water from the Mekong came excruciatingly late – forcing the lake to recede at a much lower water level when the dry season had arrived; this means that large parts of the lake never filled up as usual.

The dry season also annually triggers the world’s largest animal migration, where billions of fish come from the retreating lake back to the Mekong. This fuels Cambodia’s dynamic fish industry, where its fishermen would put nets along these migration routes to altogether contribute to an annual catch larger than all of North America’s lakes and rivers combined. A report in 2019 studying the Tonle Sap’s annual fish catch found that of the 116 species caught, 78% saw a seasonal decline in the amount of their harvest. Extreme estimates predict that the lake’s catch may have declined up to 90%, precipitating fears of a food shortage in Cambodia as fish prices continue to skyrocket.

The river is also ailing elsewhere. In Vietnam, where the Mekong Delta’s fertile grounds play a vital role in feeding the country – lower water levels are causing saltwater to intrude deeper into the region, destroying freshwater resources for millions and disrupting vast irrigation systems. In Laos and Thailand, parts of the Mekong have changed color as a result of low water levels, which vastly lessened its sediment transport capacity and as a result, make its water noticeably more transparent. This means that as sunlight shines onto the Mekong, it would absorb colors with longer wavelengths to a greater extent, greening parts of the river. Clearer waters also create conditions for algae to grow beneath the sediment at the bottom of the river, gradually making these parts of the river blue. Normally, this algae would be swept away by the Mekong’s flow, however, low water levels mean that instead of this happening, algae would continue to grow at a rate that the MRC outlined; in an analysis; may reshape its aquatic biodiversity into one that significantly hampers the productivity of the Mekong’s fisheries.

While extreme droughts in the Lower Mekong Basin undoubtedly played a significant role in causing all these issues above and many others, a study discussed on The Economist found that the eleven operational dams on the Lancang River (the upstream Chinese portion of the Mekong) altogether worsened problems of water shortages downstream.

China’s destructive dams

Over the last two decades, China has embarked on a crusade to stabilize its nationwide electricity supply and reduce its dependence on non-renewable energy. Insufficient national fossil fuel reserves and Beijing’s goal of energy independence means that China has increasingly turned towards hydroelectricity, a resource easily accessible by the country due to its diverse, often mountainous topography, which produces fertile ground for dams. This is evident in the Mekong, which starts in eastern Tibet and flows through Yunnan and Laos, before entering its lower basin in Thailand. Other than the eleven operational dams, eight dams are still planned for China, another seven for Laos, and two in Cambodia. This extensive dam network grants China a powerful ability to control how much water is sent downstream, which has naturally been determined by the dry and wet seasons.

Since the first major dam began operating in 2012, more water has been sent downstream than usual during the dry season and vice versa, disrupting natural flows. During periods of extreme drought, like that of late 2019, China’s upstream portion of the Mekong naturally contributes up to half of the river’s flow. Its eleven dams now holdbacks over 45 trillion liters of water every year. This may wreak havoc on the Mekong’s ecosystem and has already changed the river as we know it.

In Northern Thailand, Mekong fishers have had to deal with unexpected fluctuations in the river’s water flow due to China’s storing and generally unpredictable release of water from its dams. These changes are detrimental to fish migration, which as said earlier are vital for fishers as natural migration patterns provide a reliable reference for fishers to plan their catch. As these patterns subject to change, or even destruction, as a result of changes in water flow coming from the dams, fishers will possibly face irreparable losses in the coming years.

Delta farmers in Vietnam once relied on the river’s annual flood pulse to flush out salt intrusion and bring silt from the mountains through sediment, which provides a reliable source of fertility for crops. This is no longer possible, as the power of the Mekong’s flood pulse has been considerably diminished by China’s dams upstream, where its control over water have taken away this vital resource for delta farmers. Estimates put the river’s sediment load of having reduced up to half of what it was, and a more controlled flow means that the general movement and distribution of water in the Mekong ecosystem will change to have an adverse, rather than a conducive effect on farmers along the river, especially in the Delta.

Coming back to the Tonle Sap, Chinese dams may have had a significant cascade effect on Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. Located in a massive depression in central Cambodia, its drastic expansion due to floods during the monsoon season is a hydrological wonder. As dams are built upstream in the Mekong’s mountainous middle reaches, however, the lake may no longer fill up as usual during the wet season, nor drain properly in the dry season. Together with the impact of excruciating droughts such as that observed in 2019, this may break apart the hydrological rhythm of the Mekong Delta, and with that, its highly engineered agricultural foundations.

Laos’ China-backed dream

The environmental impact from China’s dams is bound to get worse as Laos; the poorest country along the Mekong; continues to pursue its goal to become the “battery” of Southeast Asia. Lao leaders were attracted by the idea that their impoverished, landlocked country could use revenues from power sales to its neighbors; which still have a relatively unstable electricity supply; to fund economic development. They believe that this could be achieved by utilizing its mountainous terrain to build hundreds of hydroelectric plants in the coming years, providing a stable supply of electricity not only to Laos but also to a region where power supplies still struggle to meet its demands.

It already operates over sixty dams on Mekong tributaries, and starting in late 2019, two of its nine planned dams for the Mekong’s main stem have become operational. The larger of the two, the Xayaburi, produces 1,285 megawatts and was highly controversial among its neighbors when it was first proposed in 2011. With support from Cambodia, Vietnam argued that the construction of the dam should be deferred ten years to allow for further study of its environmental and economic impacts downstream. Together with protests by environmentalists and farmers in Thailand’s northeastern provinces, the dam’s developer; a Thai company called CK Power; faced immense pressure to mitigate the potential negative impacts of the project. Conversely, the company and Lao officials faced pressure from the dam’s intended customer, the Thai national power company to greenlight the project. Ultimately, the Xayaburi was built, but the company claims that it has spent over $600 million to address its negative impact on downstream regions – yet many environmentalists remain skeptical.

Despite pressure from Western countries, its neighbors, and multilateral banks such as the World Bank – which has stopped funding hydroelectric projects on the Mekong citing environmental concerns – Laos seem impervious to most external opposition, as a result of strong backing from its Chinese patrons. Dam-building corporations; which make up a formidable sector of China’s state industrial complex; are openly willing to seek out any business opportunities along the Mekong that may further China’s influence in Southeast Asia. Nowhere was an opportunity for China more visible than in Laos, a country so willing to seek out any chance to alleviate its impoverished status that it welcomed China with open arms. For this reason, Lao officials; in the face of free-spending lobbying efforts from these corporations; continue to turn a blind eye toward how these hydroelectricity projects may negatively impact the environment and rural communities – in order to sustain funding from China.

Diplomacy – a viable solution?

All three countries on the lower Mekong are facing dire consequences from dry seasons becoming potentially drier as a result of human overexploitation – with the single most significant being the damming of the upper Mekong. Cambodia could face major food deficits as a result of a dying Tonle Sap. Thailand faces severe water shortages as a result of damming in Laos. The Mekong Delta, which feeds over twenty-million people in Vietnam, faces an existential threat bearing three facades: widespread erosion as a result of excessive sand mining, water levels drying up as a result of upstream damming, and rising sea levels potentially erasing over one-third of its land area.

Decision-makers across the region have yet to realize the possible socio-economic catastrophe that may come with the environmental destruction of the Mekong, but regional cooperation may be essential for each country to better adapt their economic and social policy towards the river’s future changes. With more people seeing the Mekong as a source of power, economic priorities in the region need to be recalibrated to sustain a balance between electricity, food, and trade priorities. Furthermore, how the region as a whole can mitigate both droughts and the impact of human activity along the Mekong is dependent on whether downstream can maintain a healthy dialogue with those on the upstream.

This can only be achieved if all countries sharing the Mekong find a way to work closer together – one that is more politically powerful than the current Mekong River Commission, and something more inclusive than the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation; which is China’s own commission.China undoubtedly plays a vital role in solving crises on the Mekong, as its upstream status makes the potential impact of its projects on the river most significant, and its increasing openness for dialogue across the Mekong countries may be a welcoming change toward efforts for regional cooperation. The future of the Mekong remains uncertain, but successful cooperation could make clear how this future may look like, and ensure one that does not eradicate its ecosystem nor its economic potential.

Image by dariasophia from Pixabay