Mekong and the war of water

VietNamNet 9 November 2010


VietNamNet Bridge – Once big hydro-power plants are built in the Mekong River, the challenge for cooperation among countries that share the river will grow.

Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia. From the Tibetan Plateau it runs through China's Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong is one of the world’s major rivers. It is the world's 12thlongest river and the 7thlongest in Asia. Its estimated length is 4,350 km, and it drains an area of 795,000 km2, discharging 475 cubic meters of water annually.

More than 80 million people of over 100 ethnic groups live along the river, making the Mekong basin into the world’s most culturally diverse. The Mekong basin annually produces rice that can feed 300 million people.

The Mekong basin is also one of the richest areas in terms of biodiversity in the world. Only the Amazon boasts a higher level of biodiversity. Although the Amazon has higher biodiversity, the Mekong river has a higher biodiversity per unit area.

More than 1200 species of fish have been identified and there could be possibly as many as 1700. Fishing is a very important part of the economic activities in the area and a vital source of protein in the local diet. Estimates indicate that some 120 fish species are commercially traded but most of the fishery is based on 10–20 species.

Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam established the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995 to assist in the management and for a coordinated use of the Mekong's resources. In 1996 China and Burma became “dialogue partners” of the MRC and the six countries now work together within a cooperation framework.

The MRC has received the recognition and assistance from the international community for its effort to protect the natural resources and the environment in the Mekong downstream.

However, cooperation in the Mekong basin faces frequent challenges since China and Myanmar, which are located in the Mekong upstream, don’t participate in the Mekong cooperation mechanism.

Cooperation in the Mekong basin needs a high-ranking mechanism. The MRC is at the ministerial level only, where participants discuss water-related issues while the cooperation in the basin is not only related to water.

The participation of countries outside the region will help promote dialogue and cooperation among MRC and between MRC and China, said Prof. Pham Hong Giang, Chair of the Vietnam Association on Large Dams and Water Resource Development, Vice Chair of the International Commission on Large Dams.

The two issues currently facing the Mekong river are the building of dams and blasting of rapids.

A number of dams have already been built on the river's tributaries. This has been criticised on grounds of cost as well as damage to the environment and to the livelihoods of affected villagers, though none have been built on the main part itself.

China is engaged in an extensive program of dam-building on the river itself: it has already completed three, the first called the Manwan dam, another twelve are under consideration.

Since the building of the first Chinese dam, many species have become endangered, including the Mekong Dolphin and dugong, water levels have dropped as ferries get stuck, fish caught are small and the catch is less than half of before the dam.

On top of all these problems, newly planned dams will have significantly worse impact if carried out as planned. All nations downstream and the surrounding environment will suffer from added pollution, river blockage problems as fish will not be able swim upstream to spawn, as well as a potentially devastatingly low water flow.

Other environmental concerns arise from increased water flow in some parts as China clears rocks and sandbars, blasts gorges, and slows water as it dams and floods other sections, and relocates indigenous peoples. Cambodia is by far the most exposed, depending on a fine balance of water flow, fearing scenarios of mass famine and devastating floods, the likes of which destroyed the Angkor kingdom 700 years ago. Laos' biggest cities all hug the Mekong as does Vietnam's largest city and financial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, which would be vulnerable mostly to low flow and pollution.

These matters can be solved if cooperation among countries in the Mekong basin is promoted, especially with the participation of China.

The challenges for the basin and internal cooperation will grow under the impacts of climate change and the rise of sea level. Only cooperation among Mekong countries can solve the challenges.

At the first MRC Summit on April 5 2010, MRC countries once again confirmed their determination to further promote cooperation in using the water of the Mekong River for the common interest of all related countries and to protect the river’s ecological system.