THE MEKONG RIVER DAMS DISPUTE: A THREAT TO ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY

- By Malvinder Mann (UNIMAS Intern)

 Introduction

The Mekong, sometimes called the Mekong River or Mekong Delta, is a river spanning across six countries, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. With a length of 4,350 kilometres, the Mekong River is the world’s twelfth longest river and the seventh longest on the Asian continent. the river is a major trading corridor between south-east Asia and western China. In view of its economic influence, attempting to put value on the Mekong River and calculating its effect on neighbouring countries' gross domestic product (GDP) has long been a political objective for policymakers and non-governmental organizations to measure and protect the twelfth-longest river in the world and its link to regional development.  Moreover, based on recent research carried out by the Mekong River Commission, fishing alone in the Lower Mekong Basin is estimated at a staggering $17 billion annually, directly contributing 3% to the cumulative GDP of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand.

Threats to Environmental Security

Therefore, discovering a way to share the economic advantages Mekong River possesses has always been one of Southeast Asia priorities. This led to the formation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995, from the treaty signed by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The purpose of the MRC is to regulate policies and protect Mekong River’s economic importance and at the same time the livelihood of the thousands living around it.  What is the cause of these dam disputes between its proponents and the MRC? To put this into perspective, the building of the dams would heavily affect the livelihood of the people living near the Mekong River, whom most of them are fishermen, or have something to do with the fisheries at the lower basin. The first major test for the MRC came in 2010 when Laos announced the construction of the highly controversial Xayaburi Dam. The negotiations failed to overcome the project's differences, and in 2012, Laos and Thailand went against neighbouring governments and agreed to go ahead with the building of the dam, despite persistent resistance from Cambodia and Vietnam. This was the catalyst in the escalation of the dispute between the countries which the Mekong River flows through.

On top of that, Laos has already started on its second hydropower project, called the Don Sahong Dam. This has led to numerous disputes and conflicts between its neighbouring countries, with concerns being raised on the rapid growth of two dam projects, and at the same time the poor performance and influence of the MRC in curbing the disputes. Furthermore, there is a huge possibility that the Mekong dam conflict will continue to escalate, further leading to the state where not everyone will win, and the drawbacks will be massive. There are billions of dollars at stake but so are millions of people's livelihoods, who depend on the river for resources.

The construction of the dam in the Mekong River is one of the development projects that aims to support the booming hydropower industry which brings a great change to agricultural, ecological and cultural systems in the region. Nonetheless, the construction of the dam has also brought many problems and gave negative impacts towards the countries that shared the resource-rich Mekong River which are Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The Mekong River Commission’s first hurdle was in 2010 right after Laos proposed their intention to build the Xayaburi Dam. Olson and Morton (2018) reported that the construction of the first dam south of the China border (Xayaburi Dam) to be constructed across the main stem of the Mekong River. After they proceed with the Xayaburi Dam, they also began with the second Mekong hydropower project which is called the Don Sahong Dam.

The early work has begun in Laos and with two ongoing dam projects, the dispute over the Mekong dams escalated and the trade-offs will be enormous, and billions of dollars are at stake as well. Most people were concerned that the construction of those dams in Laos would cause irreversible and long-term damage to the river that feeds millions of people by threatening the food supplies and security. This is because it the construction of the dams directly affected more than 200,000 people who used the Mekong River to produce food for living from riverbank agriculture and fishing and it also may push endangered aquatic animals to extinction. 

There are transboundary impacts of the dam’s development in the Mekong River that involves environmental security such as the loss of natural habitats, the downstream effects and the effects on human communities living along the river. Regarding the loss of natural habitats, Mekong River is known as the world’s largest freshwater fishery and it came second in aquatic biodiversity after Amazon. According to Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, there are 750,000 tons of freshwater fishes caught every year by the four countries of the Lower Mekong. Cambodia recorded the highest annual consumption of freshwater fish in the world which is 19.4 kg. According to FAO data for 2000 to 2003, of the animal protein consumed per day, the proportion supplied by freshwater fish was 16.19% in Thailand, 12.87% in Vietnam, 49.8% in Cambodia and 38.31% in Laos, which were recorded to be extremely high compared with the global average of consumption which is 5.78%.

Conclusion

Therefore, there is no doubt that the Mekong River serves as a lifeline for the communities in the countries that surrounds it. From an economic and developing perspective, the building of the dams is indeed a great economic advantage to the countries that are involved, however it is also important to note that these massive projects comes at an expense, whereby the aspect of environmental security is in threat. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) should drastically impose measures and laws that will balance between the need of economic advantages and preserving the environmental security and livelihood that the communities possesses.

References

Herbertson, K. (2013). The Mekong Dams Dispute: Four Trends to Watch. Retrieved 9 June 2020, from https://www.internationalrivers.org/blogs/267/the-mekong-dams-dispute-four-trends-to-watch

Olson, K.R., & Morton, L.W. (2018). Water rights and fights: Lao dams on the Mekong RiverJournal of Soil and Water Conservation, 73 (2), 35-41. doi: 10.2489/jswc.73.2.35A

Soutullo, J. (2019). The Mekong River: geopolitics over development, hydropower and the environment. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/639313/EXPO_STU(2019)639313_EN.pdf

 

           

 

 

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