The Mekong Runs Dry?

A close look at the river governance during the recent forum, Dialogue Forum 4: The Mekong Runs Dry? sees both progress and setbacks of the prime cooperation frameworks that help govern development of the Mekong River, the world’s 12th longest, the second richest of biodiversity, and the largest freshwater inland fishery, which has long been feeding upto 60 million riverine residents in the basin

Flowing through various landscapes from rugged terrains of the Tibetan Plateau to low plains in the Mekong Delta for nearly 5,000 kilometers, the Mekong River, the world’s 12th longest and the world’s second richest of biodiversity only after the Amazon, has long been feeding up to 60 million riverine residents who depend on its freshwater inland fishery, which is the world’s largest, with about 25% of the global catch.

The same river, however, has also long been a testing field for geo-politics as well as economic development by the world’s superpowers and regional blocs that geo-political experts have seen them shift and shuffle over time, affecting the river development and governance somehow.

Through the eyes of the experts, including Professor Emeritus Philip Hirsch, of University of Sydney’s School of Geography, who has long studied and documented about the river governance and factors in a number of papers including, the Changing Political Dynamics of Dam Building on the Mekong, the river and its basin has been subject to such the shifts, notably since 1950s, when the basin was the battle field of opposite ideologies of communism and pro-democracy backed by the United States.

Credit: MRC

In an effort to pre-empt communism in the region, it was the first time that the new regional mechanism Mekong Committee was set up, along with a plan of a cascade of dams on the mainstream river’s Lower section.

That was the very first time that geo-politics by such the superpower was at play in the basin in the field of development, at the same time testing the river governance itself.

Unfortunately, as noted in the paper, the plan was not materialized and much of this was not technical, but political as the second Indochina war precluded the plan, the paper noted.

The plan was briefly back on the table again during 1990s, with the Mekong Committee having evolved into the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995.

As its role and personnel were much reminiscent of the former one, this raised doubts among environmentalists as well as sustainable development advocates over the new institution, which has later become the prime framework of cooperation for the so-called Mekong countries.

Pushed by the regional ambition to turn the battle field to a new trade field and a thirst for energy in neighboring countries, the plan was brushed again before succumbing to rapid expansion of tributary dam development as well as heavy debates over environmental destruction on the mainstream river.

It was not until the first decade of 2000s that the plan was pushed through, by national ambitions, Laos’ ambition to be a battery of Asia, for instance, the transformed public private partnership and trans-border investments that have gone too far complex to follow up, and the roles of superpowers like China and even the US which is back to the basin.

The first dam of the plan, Xayaburi, was first materialized in late 2010 (completed and in operation in 2019) with Laos’ submission for the region’s first prior consultation governed by the MRC.

By this time, China, which has also been successful in developing a cascade of dams on the Upper section since 1990s due in large part to its geo-political location and power, also expanded its power through joint investments in some projects downstream including the third proposed Pak Bang dam project, along with other firms in the region which have been vying against one another for investments in the Mekong dam construction.

The Xayaburi Dam, the first in operation downstream.

While the push of geo-politics and economic development are still pretty much at play and affect the river development and governance, Dr. Somkiat Prajamwong, Chairperson of the MRC Joint Committee for 2020 and Secretary General of the Office of the National Water Resources, who shared his insights at the recent Dialogue Forum 4, the Mekong Runs Dry?, organized by Bangkok Tribune and partners with the support of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (Thailand Office),  said the river and its basin at present see two prime regional cooperation blocs, where the river development as well as likely impacts could be brought for negotiations.

The first is the MRC’s regulation, under which the prior consultation and notification are seen as the prime mechanisms and processes to help regulate development of the river. Under the processes, any development that involves utilization of water in the Mekong tributaries, a country which proposes a project is required by the MRC’s rule to “notify” its neighboring countries.

But if a project is planned on the mainstream river, a country which proposes a project is required to submit its project to the prior consultation, under which neighboring countries and their river communities and residents would be consulted with about the project to address concerns. This normally lasts six months without a consensus over a project, one of the weakest points of the mechanism.

Under the bloc, China and Myanmar, which also share the same river, have never been part of it, but maintained their statuses as observers. There are only Thailand, Lao PDR, Vietnam, and Cambodia being under the MRC, Dr. Somkiat noted.

Dr. Somkiat at the forum held at SEA-Junction, BACC.

It was not until 2012 that another attempt was made to include the two countries. Thailand had proposed the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation before it was materialized in the Mekong leaders’ meeting in China in 2016.

Under this bloc, Dr. Somkiat said, China and Myanmar could join in development and management of the Mekong River along with other Mekong countries, with work pretty much focusing on information sharing and research and studies.

Realising some weak points of its rules and regulations, the MRC has been trying to develop and put in place new mechanisms to plug such the loopholes.

According to Dr. Somkiat, the third and fourth dam projects of Pak Bang and Pak Lay proposed during 2010s resulted in two new initiatives to help materialize mitigation measures against concerns by neighbouring countries over the proposed projects.

The first was the Joint Action Plan and the Joint Statement which helped address an official stance of the neighboring countries over a proposed project and introduce action plans to address their concerns in regard to the project. The second was the Joint Environmental Monitoring to help monitor impacts and recommend further mitigation measures for the project.

However, Dr. Somkiat said the initiatives were not ominously accepted by concerned parties, especially Laos, who wished to push the projects through.

It was not until the fifth project of Luang Prabang was proposed last year that prompted the parties to push the JA and JS through. Part of this was the reason that it was close to Luang Prabang, which is Laos’ World Heritage that prompted Laos to agree to follow the JS and the JA, Dr. Somkiat said.

With concerns from neighboring countries being detailed, the existing mechanisms and processes of the prior consultation has evolved over time. Dr. Somkiat said the sixth project of Sanakham would not stick to the timeframe of six months for the prior consultation any more. The consultation, he said, must be “completed” before proceeding.

JC Working Group on the first prior consultation meeting of the Sanakham project.
Credit: ONWR

As this year’s Chair, Dr. Somkiat said Thailand has also proposed further initiatives involving compensation in case damages occur to neighboring countries.

This new financing mechanism, Dr. Somkiat hoped, would drive other relevant mechanisms to function and keep a project in real check. For instance, through the new financing mechanism, externality costs would be included in costs of dam construction, prompting developers to carefully weight costs and benefits before proceeding with their investments.

Also, Thailand would propose joint studies with a number of famous institutions and countries to get facts from the ground and the database for decision-making, one of the critical elements needed in the bloc. For instance, it would join the US Army of Engineers to study land use changes, while studying drought over the basin with Japan. This, Dr. Somkiat noted, is to balance “technology” at the same time.

“The existing mechanism (the MRC) that we have may not be perfect, because even within a country, implementing the rules is problematic sometimes. It’s not easy, but we will not lose our efforts to implement them and fix the problems that we have,” remarked Dr. Somkiat, while stressing that the MRC is only an agreement, and has no legal binding effects, or penalties.

An unusal drop of the Mekong observed in recent years.

The governance in function?

A long-time sustainable river development advocate Premruedee Daoroung, a former director of Towards Ecological Recovery Regional Alliances (TERRA), questioned about the effectiveness of this regional bloc from the beginning and she still has a question these days.

As a coordinator of the group, Lao Dam Investment Monitor (LDIM), which monitors a number of dam construction projects and their impacts in the region, Premruedee said there is no longer a question about the dam impacts of the mainstream river on the river ecosystems and peoples’ livelihoods, given a number of excuses given by the countries themselves.

In spite of evidence available and the impacts which have become more and more intensified over time, the governments of the Mekong countries still keep denying all these facts.

Premruedee said the problem is with the regional river governance and its mechanisms themselves, as they try to push everything about dam construction on the mainstream river through their processes, while some of them do not function as supposed to.

The prime mechanism of the prior consultation, for one, is heavily criticized by environmentalists for its failure to deliver a consensus against the proceedings of the dam constructions despite some impacts are imminent.

“Such the mechanisms and processes demand no conscience, but the point is some of them do not function as supposed to, even the body itself, since the beginning when it was first established in 1995,” said Premruedee, who joined with her colleagues in questioning the MRC whether it would only be a rubber stamp for a proposed river development project.

The dry Mekong frequently experienced by the Mekong residents.

Premruedee cited the strategic environmental assessment conducted for the first time for the basin in 2010 as commissioned by the body. Among the weaknesses addressed, was the fact that the basin was weak at institutionalization of a body to help govern the river, and that was part of the reason why the assessment, hailed by all concerned for its impartiality, recommended the Mekong countries at that time defer the 11 proposed projects for at least ten years.

“The report concluded that the Mekong River should not be an experimental field for dam construction and it proposed the deferral with reviews over alternative energy supplies every three years. None of the parties concerned paid heed to. If we had paid heed to this report and its recommendations, we would not have faced what we have faced today.

“I think what we have missed in this regional cooperation is the political will to stop the dams and efforts to make it as our collective will (towards true sustainable development),” said Premruedee, suggesting the regional or basin based bloc of cooperation cannot well cope with the Mekong situation amid increasing challenges of geopolitics and development pressure, including those from superpowers like China.

A fisherman finds it harder to fish in the Mekong these days.

Transboundary Impacts

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for the International Rivers, which advocates for sustainable river development worldwide, said accountability of dam construction on the Mekong mainstream which is a crucial part of the river governance has long been absent since the construction of a cascade of dams on the Upper section of the river by China in 1990s.

Although riverine residents downstream felt a pinch of the dams upstream, they were never told what’s actually going on upstream by China.

This, she said, continues through the dams which are being built at the moment by downstream countries, reflecting the weakness of the bloc to deal with transboundary impacts.

Pianporn said the governments should stop their ambitions and help fix the problems the dams have caused, either the dams in China or the Xayaburi dam.

“It’s not justified today to keep building the dams while losses are outweighing benefits. What is justified is mitigating the impacts the dams have caused. Why keep building them when proceeding with all procedures concerned would just rubber stamp companies to exploit resources that belong to us all.

“I think we should rather move ahead by fixing the problems together. Accept them and I believe that today we can fix them together,” said Pianporn.

Nam-Ou, one of the main Mekong tributaries in northern Laos, also subject to dam construction.
Tonle Sap fisherman finds it hard to fish in the drying lake, the region’s largest dependent on the Mekong flows.
Prek Toal bird sanctuary and the Ramsar site in Tonle Sap experienced unusual drops of the river.
The Mekong Delta, the region’s rice bowl is challenged by the drops of the Mekong that prompt an increase of salt intrusion.