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Friday, April 30, 2010

Avoiding Crisis in the Mekong River Basin

Earlier this month, the leaders of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and host country Thailand gathered for the first-ever Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit to discuss the future of the Mekong, one of the world's longest and most resource-rich rivers.

There was much to discuss. The Mekong -- which flows through China, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, and provides food, water, and transport for about 65 million people -- is now at its lowest level in two decades due to a prolonged drought. Its future is also in peril due to a host of natural and man-made threats. Unless riparian states make a concerted, joint effort to manage the river's resources prudently and sustainably, their actions risk threatening food security, destroying livelihoods, and heightening regional tensions.

The main threat is from hydropower. China, which already has five operational dams, plans to construct about 15 more large- to mega-sized hydropower dams upstream, while Southeast Asian states themselves mull building 11 of their own further downstream. While these dams do not deplete the river's water supply outright, they affect the hydrology of the Mekong by altering the natural timing and volume of the river's seasonal flows. According to a recent report (.pdf) by the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank, resulting reductions in silt deposits downstream could threaten one of the most productive regions of wet rice cultivation, while erratic water currents may block the spawning migration of fish in what is now the world's largest freshwater fishery.

Other trends are equally, if not more worrying. Demographic and development pressures will further increase demand on the river's already threatened resources. According to projections (.pdf) by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the population in the Lower Mekong is expected to swell to 90 million by 2025, with over a third living in urban areas. Total irrigation water requirements for the region, which stood at about 43,700 million cubic meters in 2002, will rise to about 56,700 million cubic meters by the end of this year.

Disruptive climate change threats also hover in the longer-term future. Global conservation group WWF predicts intense floods and droughts, coastal erosion, higher seas and heat waves for the Mekong Delta. Vietnam's own Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment says that if sea levels rise 30 inches by 2100, 20 percent of the Delta and 10 percent of Ho Chi Minh City could be swamped.

The six riparian states now seem to grasp the growing threats to the Mekong as well as the coming crisis they might spawn. At the first summit convened in the MRC's 15-year history this month, Thai Prime Minister and host Abhisit Vejjajiva declared that the Mekong "will not survive" if nations do not "take joint responsibility for its long-term sustainability." Leaders of the four Mekong Basin nations -- Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam -- also agreed on areas for "priority action," including researching threats related to climate change and intensifying efforts toward flood and drought management. China, for its part, also began releasing previously withheld data on water flows in its section of the river last month, in response to claims that its dams upstream were causing the current protracted drought.

Yet far bolder efforts will be needed to save the Mekong. China and Myanmar must become full members of the MRC, instead of just dialogue partners, in order to truly participate in cooperative river management. China may be right that its dams are not causing the current drought, but suspicions linger over Beijing's actions precisely because it has refused to share data with downstream nations or sign on to the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. If China does not show signs of addressing other riparian states' concerns, the perception -- accurate or not -- will remain that Beijing is reaping the upstream benefits of hydropower while leaving downstream nations to bear the costs.

Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos must themselves strike a better balance between their individual economic needs and environmental responsibilities. At times, government planning and decision-making reportedly takes place without adequate local input or comprehensive cost-benefit evaluations. In Cambodia and Laos, experts complain that government officials lack the governance capacity and skills necessary to conduct or comprehend research about the scale of potential environmental damage. Commercial or geostrategic imperatives may also lead these governments to disregard knowledge even when it is available, since some dam proposals are linked to powerful domestic interests in Laos or to the Chinese government, Cambodia's largest aid donor. Greater participatory planning and more-detailed assessments must be conducted before decisions are made about mammoth infrastructure projects, in order to accurately assess their implications and make plans to address any fallout.

Trans-boundary river management also ought to extend beyond research and contingency planning. Countries must consult each other about any major development projects they are undertaking as outlined in the 1995 agreement, since the Mekong is a shared resource. Riparian states should also try to agree on a basin-wide standard for environmental and socio-economic impact studies, as the Stimson Center report advocates. As for the MRC, it should broaden its cooperation with countries such as the United States, which could potentially assist Lower Mekong Basin states with human-capacity-building or research technology. The introduction of the Lower Mekong Initiative by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the 2009 ASEAN ministerial meeting in Thailand, as well as the addition of a position on Mekong affairs to the staff of the State Department's East Asia/Pacific Bureau, means that sufficient political will, interest and resources exist in Washington for engagement on this issue.

The threats to the Mekong should be clear to all by now. It is up to riparian nations, international organizations and other interested countries to cooperatively ensure that these grim scenarios and gloomy predictions do not crystallize into reality. Otherwise, one of the world's greatest rivers will be endangered, with profound implications for the region.

Prashanth Parameswaran is research assistant at the Project 2049 Institute, a Washington-based think tank that covers Asian security issues. He is also a research fellow for Asia Chronicle, a daily online journal, and blogs about international affairs at GlobalEye.

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