Need for a paradigm shift in Mekong management

Author: Andrew Rothe, Macquarie University

The Mekong River is one of the largest and most important rivers in Southeast Asia. It is an important source of income and sustenance for many in the riparian countries including China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Through large-scale development over the past few decades the river has become a valuable source of power for China.

The Manwan Dam of the Mekong River

In 1957, a study by the United Nations Economic Commission for Asia and the Far East (UNECAFE) saw great potential in developing the Mekong River. This development has boomed in the last two decades with a focus on large-scale infrastructure programs. China’s eight dam cascade in southern Yunnan province is a good example of such large scale hydro-power and irrigation programs. The development of the Mekong provides notable benefits, from large-scale power production and the economic development of impoverished areas, to curbing the frequency and ferocity of seasonal floods.

But over-development of the river could spell disaster. Excessive damming impedes water flow, in turn reducing fish stocks and raising silt levels downstream, upsetting the delicate ecosystem of the Mekong and tributaries, such as the Tonle Sap.

Large-scale, infrastructure driven development practices may provide profit in the short term, yet in the long term these practices are unsustainable. They may in fact undermine future profits when the river becomes a potential source of conflict or tension.

Traditional views of river management need to shift from seeing the Mekong as a resource in and of itself, to an asset that can provide resources if properly tended. This requires the adoption of sustainable development policies. These policies may cause immediate profit may fall, but the long-term profit will be substantial not only in dollar terms but also in terms of human security.

By definition sustainable development must be so for all parties and cooperation is the key to success. There is a long history of official Mekong cooperation, beginning with the foundation of the Mekong Commission in 1957. But historically cooperative management tends to focus on large infrastructure programs.

This focus began to change with the signing of the 1995 Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin, leading to the establishment of the Mekong River Commission. The MRC attempts to regulate the development of the river in more sustainable terms, yet, as with all systems, there are pitfalls.

Only four of the six riparian states are members, with China and Myanmar being only dialogue partners. Not being a signatory of the MRC, China was able to implement its dam cascade after minimal consultation with downstream states.

China could potentially be persuaded to join the MRC in light of its desire to be seen as a responsible international power. China’s rhetoric of a ‘harmonious society’ needs to be backed by action, and Mekong cooperation provides a profound opportunity to do so. Cooperation over Mekong management would go a long way toward reassuring the international community, especially ASEAN, that China’s rise should not be seen as a threat.

Yet China’s need for short-term growth may derail this process. China walks a fine line between the desire to implement sustainable policies for the long-term, and the need to produce immediate profit and results to foster economic growth and social stability.

This balance also spills into the lower riparian countries. In a desire to generate wealth, these countries are beginning to consider development of their own hydro-power schemes, with the backing of foreign companies. If the Mekong is to have a sustainable future then these plans will need to be carefully reassessed.

As a counter-consideration, there is considerable support for hydro-power schemes from the need for clean, renewable energy sources to combat climate change. Sustainable development is no simple matter.

With China’s rise under the spotlight, there is great potential for Mekong cooperation to flourish and for sustainable policies to be implemented. Yet all parties must be aware of the potential hindrances to this process, and understand that it will not be a jolt-free ride.

This piece is a runner up in the recent EAF Emerging Scholars competition.

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