Countries in the lower Mekong basin are in need of a collective strategy to secure their future, given China’s control of the river upstream and ongoing changes in global geo-politics.
The Mekong runs 4,909 kilometres from Western China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. But only its lower portion is regulated by an international agreement and multi-country organisation. Not covered is China’s part of the river, which it calls the Lancang.
While all six countries in the basin are exploiting more and more Mekong resources – for hydropower by damming the mainstream and major tributaries, for transporting goods and for its fisheries – there remain no clear procedures to ensure proper management of the Mekong environment and fair resource distribution between countries.
These Mekong activities have caused cross-boundary impacts in the sub-region over the past decade, leading to occasional differences and disputes over water resource utilisation and management.
Hydropower construction and operations on the Mekong mainstream in China and Laos have also caused severe impacts to downstream countries.
Dams can create fluctuation of water flows, block navigation routes and prevent fish migration vital to spawning and renewing stocks.
Four lower-Mekong countries – Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – signed an agreement back in 1995 to establish regulations for river utilisation and set up the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to coordinate and enforce the agreement.
But the inter-governmental MRC is now struggling to influence Mekong decision-making in its individual member-countries, with Laos deciding to push ahead in constructing the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams on the mainstream despite concerns expressed by its neighbours. Menawhile more Laos dams are in the pipeline.
The MRC’s core mechanism – the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) – has proved weak as a means of influencing its members’ decisions.
Even weaker is its credibility as a mechanism for incorporating all stakeholders’ views, as seen in the move by civic groups to boycott the latest public hearing on the planned Pak Lay dam recently.
The MRC and its four members now face another big challenge to their Mekong management, after the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) forum was created in 2015 to include all six Mekong countries under one framework.
While jurisdictions of the MRC and the LMC are different, some areas overlap – notably water resource management.
Despite calls over the past few years for the MRC to expand and cover the upper Mekong, by inviting China and Myanmar to become full members, both have maintained “dialogue partner” status since 1996.
The partner status means the MRC has been able to get a certain degree of cooperation on water resource management, with China agreeing to share hydrology information. But further cooperation remains illusive.
Indications are that the LMC’s institutions and mechanisms will eclipse the MRC in the near future, since Beijing commands huge resources and funds to forge bilateral cooperation with countries downstream.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who oversees the LMC, has rejected the idea that the MRC is being overshadowed and has suggested that the two could support and complement each other.
The MRC is also seeking closer relations with the LMC’s Water Resource Cooperation Centre.
MRC chief executive officer Pham Tuan Phan met with senior Chinese officials in Kunming on the sidelines of the First Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Forum last week to discuss tighter links between the two organisations.
“China has welcomed our call to strengthen cooperation between the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Centre and MRC for the benefit of the whole Mekong River basin,” Pham said.
“We will be working on further identifying key areas of cooperation that are vital to our work for sustainable development of the Mekong River and the basin’s people.”
One key area where cooperation is needed is the sharing of forecast data from the Jing Hong dam, whose huge releases of water can send Mekong levels soaring.
Sharing hydrological data during the dry season would also benefit development planning and drought management in the Mekong, said Pham.
Under the current data-sharing agreement, China shares water levels twice daily during the flood season from June to October, using measurements at two stations located on the Lancang.
This information is fed into the MRC’s flood forecasting system.
China contributes 13.5 per cent of the flow of the Mekong River, according the MRC.
The MRC said it needs more cooperation from China and the LMC to update its strategic plans on sustainable hydropower and basin development.
“There is no better time than now for China to cooperate with the MRC in the interest of the whole basin population of over 70 million people,” said Pham.
Indeed, the proposal for closer cooperation between the two Mekong-management bodies was emphasised during an MRC summit in Cambodia’s Siem Reap in April this year.
But crucially the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam failed to spell out what they meant by “cooperation” in this context. The suspicion is that it could mean “reliance on China” – as it does in many other sub-regional cooperation schemes.
Cooperation in this sense is not based on equality and reciprocity, but in China playing the role of “donor” country with power to match.
The writer is editor of The Nation.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network, and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.