The confluence where the Songkhram River meets the Mekong at Ban Chai Buri, Tha Uthen District, Nakhon Phanom. An unusual drop of the Mekong River and the absence of its backflow in the Songkhram during the rainy season have been observed this year. Photo: ©KAS Thailand/Pattravut Boonprasert

Dams and droughts, data and diplomacy in the Mekong

As the Mekong Region faces more intense floods and droughts every year, data sharing and water diplomacy are emerging as new narratives for transboundary water governance

“This year, every country in the Lancang-Mekong Region is facing severe floods. But our challenge is now compounded by Covid-19. It is difficult to help flood-affected communities when we also have to keep social distancing,” said Dr. Seree Supratid, Director, Climate Change and Disaster Centre, Rangsit University, Thailand speaking at a forum on research and policy in the Mekong Region held recently.

A study released in October 2021 by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) confirmed that floods have become more frequent along the [Mekong] River: “In the last three years, about 62% of sample villages experienced losses and damages from flooding. Thailand had the highest portion (80%) while Viet Nam had the lowest (42%). Twenty-five per cent of villages observed that the impacts of flooding became much worse, and 25% of villages reported these impacts were worse in the last 12 months than in previous years.”  

Droughts are also of concern. In 2019-2020, Thailand experienced two consecutive years of record drought conditions that were considered as some of the worst in the past 40 years with 25 provinces being declared as drought disaster zones.

The 2019-2020 drought-affected huge numbers of riparian fishers and farmers in the Mekong Basin. Fishers in northeast Thailand and Cambodia reported drastic declines in fish catches in the Mekong’s tributaries while many farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam deserted their farms to find jobs in urban areas.

An important ecological feature of the Mekong River is its annual/seasonal pulse with periodic flooding and low water levels that contributes to fish diversity and abundance. In recent years, this formerly predictable river pulse has been disrupted by a combination of climate change factors and the construction of large dams on the river – 11 in China and two (Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams) on the Mekong mainstem in Lao PDR, plus many more on the tributaries.

Building narratives

During the period of the 2019-2020 drought, tensions increased among the governments of the Lancang-Mekong Region. In particular, China’s dam reservoirs on the Lancang (Upper Mekong) River came in for criticism that they were holding back water and exacerbating the impact of the drought in the lower basin.

“Floods and droughts are now viewed in terms of certain socially constructed narratives. These narratives have political consequences among different groups,” according to Prof. Lyu Xing from Yunnan University in China.

“There is a need to figure out what is ‘natural phenomena’ and what is the consequence of human actions such as climate change or river infrastructure affecting the Mekong River. We should pay attention to how these narratives are being constructed and used. People can easily finger point and blame each other for floods and droughts, but this doesn’t solve the problem,” he cautioned.

Good peer-reviewed scientific research can help unpack narratives and ensure transparency in transboundary cooperation. In the view of Dr. Carl Middleton of Chulalongkorn University, “Scientific research and knowledge can bridge our understanding of the natural phenomenon and socially constructed narratives.”

“During the severe drought in 2019-2020, increased political tensions over the low water flows in the Mekong River showed the challenges and limitations of transboundary water governance, especially how data sharing informs analysis.

“One of the key issues that emerged is the incomplete availability of real-time data about water flows in the public domain on the operation and storage of dam projects in the Lancang-Mekong Basin,” he said.

The tensions over the lack of data sharing eventually brought about more institutional cooperation between the MRC and China’s Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, with the latter established by China in 2015. A number of meetings were held.

In October 2020, MRC announced an agreement with China to share data twice per day, all year-round, on rainfall and river levels from two monitoring stations in Manwan and Jinghong.  This is a big step forward as the previous agreement between MRC and China only provided for the sharing of data in the wet season.

The MRC has stated its goal is to establish a “water diplomacy framework” that would help to inform negotiations, manage tensions and resolve disputes, to keep the Mekong free from water-related conflicts.

“Water diplomacy is emerging in the region, but it is very state-centric and downplays the role of non-state actors including civil society groups and local community groups”, said Dr. Middleton.

Water diplomacy: whose values, for whose benefit?

In July 2018, the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam in southern Laos caved in flushing 481 million cubic meters of water downstream destroying farms, property and livestock. The dam break made thousands of people homeless in both Laos and Cambodia; 49 people died with many missing and presumed drowned.

The dam collapsed following torrential rains. Civil society reported that the dam was not designed to cope with extreme weather events; moreover, the local communities were never actually consulted before construction commenced. Even now, thousands of communities live in makeshift shelters and face water and food shortages. Yet the many lessons from the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy dam collapse seem to have not been taken up by dam developers and regional governments.

The present narrative of water diplomacy seems to have limits that need to be clearly acknowledged.  For now, water diplomacy retains a focus on inter-government dialogue, basin planning, technical exchanges, sharing of water data, elevating engineering and technological knowledge about dams and hydrological measurements over other forms of knowledge.

It does not seek to resolve the continuing tensions over how large dam building is planned and decided in the Mekong River and its tributaries, in particular without addressing the concerns of thousands of local communities who depend on the Mekong River for sustenance and livelihoods.

Data sharing about river flows (increasing) and reservoir operations (not yet) does not equate to knowledge of the river ecosystems, especially the intimate knowledge and experience of riparian communities and their visions for development.  The state-centric transboundary water governance efforts give short shrift to non-state actors and their localized knowledge about the river basin and its ecosystems. 

The Mekong River and its ecosystems possess many values ranging from the regional to local economy as well as cultural and spiritual. Yet, the region’s governments prioritize the economic value of the river and regional economic integration over local economic, livelihood and cultural values.

In an era of climate change uncertainty combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, vulnerable and marginalized communities continue to bear the brunt of the impacts from floods and droughts.

If the emerging water diplomacy is not to worsen water insecurities, it cannot sidestep contestations about dam decision-making and the unsustainable trajectory of development in the Mekong Region.

This piece is based on reflections from the event “Research and Policy Forum” hosted by the Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) on 27-28 October. SUMERNET aims to “reduce water insecurities for all, in particular, the poor, marginalized and socially vulnerable groups in the Mekong Region”.