Geopolitics plays out on the Mekong with doubts on dams and promises of cooperation

The river Mekong at Luang Prabang. Photo: Skylar Lindsay

The geopolitics of the Mekong river continue to evolve, with key announcements from China, Thailand and the Mekong River Commission.


Recent weeks have seen new developments in the ongoing tension over the Mekong river and its waters, as the river basin faces ecological crises and its waters play an ever-larger role in geopolitics.

Thailand has announced that it is reconsidering its decision to purchase power from the planned Sanakham Dam, a large hydropower project on the mainstream of the Mekong in Laos. 

China has announced new plans to share some year-round data gathered from the upper portion of the Mekong, also called the Lancang. The move is a goodwill gesture—or a public relations move—following years of criticism over the country’s unilateral decision making on water issues as well as incriminating research exposing its controversial water management policies.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a key multilateral partnership between Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, also met and published new plans for managing the Mekong’s waters, though it remains to be seen whether the new agendas mean much for the river basin’s struggling communities and ecosystems.

The Mekong has been on the brink of ecological crises for years, with major consequences for food supplies, livelihoods and nearly all aspects of life for the 60 million people who depend on the river. Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, the largest inland fishery in the world, is nearing collapse due primarily to low river levels. This year, the Mekong has become a prominent foreign policy issue as the US seeks to check Chinese influence and Beijing’s at times belligerent use of soft power in Southeast Asia.

Thailand weighs evidence on costly Mekong dam

In late November, Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources said it may pull its support of the Sanakham dam, which would be built by Chinese state-owned company Datang, due to a lack of information about the project’s impacts. 

Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general of the Office of National Water Resources, said that Thailand “disagrees with the project”.

Thailand—and state-run power company the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) in particular—has so far been a key partner for the Lao government in its plans to turn the landlocked country into the “battery of Southeast Asia”. The Sanakham dam is Laos’ seventh large dam planned for the Mekong, according to Radio Free Asia.

The impact assessment for the project, submitted to the MRC as part of the mandatory review process for all Mekong dams, appeared to be plagiarized from the assessment for the Pak Lay dam, planned for a site over 50 kilometers upstream. That assessment had itself also reportedly been copied from the impact study of the Pak Beng dam, planned for a site on the Mekong over 180 kilometers away.

The Sanakham dam has drawn widespread condemnation from environmental experts and civil society groups, including Save the Mekong and People’s Network of Isaan Mekong Basin. Thailand’s reconsideration signals that there may be room to shift the country’s stance on purchasing hydropower.

Critics of the dam-building spree have noted that there are far more sustainable, low-impact, cheaper alternatives to large hydropower. In early 2019 alone, Vietnam added 4,400 MW of new solar power capacity, according to the Save the Mekong coalition.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A new multilateral plan for water cooperation

At its latest summit, the MRC announced new plans and strategies that will reportedly shift the body’s focus from knowledge sharing to “comprehensive cooperation on water resources development and management”, including through a first-ever environmental management strategy for the Lower Mekong.

The MRC will also launch new programs for both basin-wide sediment management and the valuing of ecosystem services—the benefits populations gain from the river’s ecosystem.

But communities along the Mekong and environmental advocates say the MRC’s new plans will do little to prevent ecological disaster.

“The people of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam who rely on the Lower Mekong are not looking to the MRC to conduct additional assessments,” wrote WWF Freshwater Lead Marc Goichot in response to the commission’s plans. “They need urgent action to enhance the health of the river, which is the foundation of their societies and economies.”

Though the MRC’s promises may fall short of what’s needed, Thai Deputy Prime Minister Prawit Wongsuwon did appear to signal his country’s desire to balance China’s power on Mekong water issues. “Any discussion must be done based on ‘One Mekong One Spirit’ to make balance of people, economic growth and environment. And we won’t leave anyone behind,” Prawit said.

Photo: Basile Morin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

China opens a gate to data sharing

On December 1, China announced the launch of a new information-sharing platform for hydrological data—the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform. Beijing says the platform will share year-round hydrological data with the five downstream Mekong countries, enabling forecasting of river levels as well as droughts and floods. The platform shares data from two monitoring stations in the upper Mekong basin: one at Yunjinghong and one on a tributary at Manan. 

China has already been sharing this same data since 2003, though only for the October-June flood season. Beijing is casting the change to year-round data sharing as a major shift in its cooperation.

“The water ministries of the six member countries could fully use this website to accelerate the establishment of an information-sharing platform, so as to promptly realize the comprehensive sharing of data, information, knowledge, experience and technology in the field of water resources,”  said E Jingping, China’s minister of water resources, at the platform’s launch.

Following China’s initial promises to improve information sharing earlier in the year, the MRC asked that Beijing make use of existing mechanisms for cooperation. The MRC already has a data-sharing platform governed by the 1995 Mekong Agreement.

China’s recent actions on Mekong water issues come after a study published in April showed that the 11 Chinese dams on the upper Mekong held back nearly all of the river’s flow during a record-breaking drought in 2019. Communities and ecosystems downstream in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam struggled with record-low river levels, impacting local populations’ food supplies and livelihoods. Beijing’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected the study, calling the claim that Chinese dams were causing drought “unreasonable.” 

Beijing has also condemned Washington’s involvement in Mekong water governance issues.

“For political purposes, some countries outside the region have repeatedly used the Mekong water resources issue to spread rumors and stir up trouble, alienating all parties and undermining sub-regional cooperation,” said Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Luo Zhaohui following the launch of the new initiative. “The Mekong Subregion is a stage for common development, not a product of geopolitics. China will work with Mekong countries to enhance strategic mutual trust, pursue win-win cooperation and jointly build and safeguard our common home.”

Washington recently announced that its Lower Mekong Initiative, launched in 2009, will now be replaced by a well-resourced US-Mekong Partnership. The partnership will promote “the stability, peace, prosperity, and sustainable development of the Mekong sub-region,” and includes its own data project, the Mekong Water Data Initiative.

As for the needs of Mekong communities themselves, many observers say the river’s future depends on whether the region’s leaders will listen to the scientific evidence and the voices of local experts.

“The obvious conclusion is that the current model for sharing the Mekong river’s resources is very far from sustainable,” WWF’s Goichot writes, “and that urgent action is needed to chart a new course for the river, which will underpin the region’s sustainable development rather than undermine it.”

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