Image Caption: Despite a new regional cooperation mechanism, sustainable use of the Mekong River continues to be threatened by hydropower development.
Running through China (the People’s Republic of China), Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, the Mekong River constitutes a river basin home to 70 million people. Despite concerns about its impacts on other water uses, hydropower development proceeds in the Mekong River basin alongside other activities such as fishing and agriculture. The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), launched in 2015, offers new hope for water sustainability by gathering the six Mekong countries to cooperate on water resource management. To understand whether the LMC will contribute to sustainable use of the Mekong, I identify how hydropower development, undertaken without transboundary water governance, threatens water sustainability. Then, I examine why transboundary water governance has failed, and whether the LMC will succeed. Transboundary water governance has failed due to differing national interests, regional power asymmetry, and weak regional institutions. As platform led by China and which is not designed for transboundary water governance, the LMC leaves these factors unresolved. Therefore, the LMC does not support sustainable use of the Mekong. My analysis draws primarily on academic sources, with media commentaries to provide more contemporary insight on the LMC.
As the Mekong region develops, so has hydropower to meet a rising demand for energy. Hydropower development has proven to be a contentious issue and a key threat to sustainable use of the Mekong. Although upstream dams may alter water flow for downstream users and pose other changes to water use in the basin, countries have nevertheless proceeded with dam-building.
In 2015, China launched the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) with the other five Mekong river countries. The LMC appears to offer the potential to address the conflict between hydropower development and sustainable use of the Mekong, since all riparian countries are participants in this cooperation mechanism that features water resources as one of its five initial priority areas. Despite this emphasis on sustainability, I argue that the LMC will not improve water governance to resolve the conflict between hydropower development and Mekong sustainability. Hydropower development threatens the sustainable use of the Mekong as it poses environmental and social consequences across the basin, and yet proceeds without transboundary agreement. Transboundary water governance in the Mekong has failed for several reasons: countries have prioritized national interests, power imbalances exist among countries, and current regional institutions are unable to adequately provide water management over the entire river basin. The LMC, though improving basin cooperation, does not address these problems because it is China-led and not designed to facilitate water governance. Consequently, the LMC will not resolve the threat hydropower development poses to the sustainable use of the Mekong.
Hydropower’s negative impacts threaten sustainable use of the Mekong. Sustainability, as David Feldman’s book on freshwater sustainability defines, is the ability to manage resources while maintaining the welfare of people and other living organisms. In the Mekong basin, people use the river for freshwater consumption, agriculture, fishing, and transportation. According to Osborne’s book on the Mekong River and its surrounding politics, approximately 80 percent of the basin’s population depend on fish or agriculture from the Mekong for subsistence. Additionally, as numerous sources explain, hydropower development threatens these uses, in turn threatening sustainable use of the Mekong. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s summary of the environmental and societal impacts of hydropower development include negative impacts on the ecosystem, negative impacts on water for uses in navigation and fisheries, and adverse impact on water quality. Kuenzer et al., who analyze the impact of several planned hydropower projects, further detail these impacts: dams can affect fish stocks by impeding fish migration and blocking nutrient-rich sediment flows that sustain the Mekong’s biodiversity. Given these impacts on the important uses of the Mekong, hydropower development is a risk to the sustainable use of the Mekong.
The lack of transboundary water governance in the Mekong further compounds threats to sustainability. Since the Mekong travels through several countries, dam-building on an upstream part of the Mekong can affect downstream users. Given the transboundary impacts of dam-building, international cooperation on planning such projects is required in order to achieve sustainability. This demands participation from all riparian countries too, as one of Feldman’s seven principles for sustainable water planning affirms that all those impacted by water decisions must be included in the decision-making process. This is not the case in the Mekong basin since riparian countries China and Myanmar are not part of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the main institution for regional water governance. Furthermore, countries have proceeded with dam projects without agreement from other countries. According to Biba, who examines China’s dam-building on the Mekong, China began unilaterally constructing a series of eight dams in 1980s. Even MRC members do not heed the MRC’s guidance, as the Xayaburi Dam project showcases. Laos has continued with the project, ignoring Cambodian and Vietnamese fears of the project’s impacts on fishing and agriculture, and disregarding recommendations from an MRC-commissioned 2015 Strategic Environmental Assessment that countries delay mainstream dam-building until 2025 due to the risks of irreversible damage. These cases exemplify how a lack of transboundary governance allows hydropower development to proceed, despite concerns from other basin countries. Without transboundary water governance that includes the input from all basin members, hydropower development thus threatens the sustainable use of the Mekong.
Transboundary water governance to address hydropower concerns has failed in the Mekong basin for three reasons. Firstly, countries have diverging interests with regards to hydropower development. Upstream countries like China and Laos seek to take advantage of the mountainous geography to generate hydropower. Zhang’s study of Chinese hydropower on the Mekong, known as Lancang in China, shows that hydropower offers great benefits to China. To China, hydropower on the Lancang is a source of renewable energy that supports economic development and generates revenue for local governments. Summers’ article on Chinese conceptions of the Mekong basin also concludes that economic development is China’s priority for that region. Downstream countries, on the other hand, are vulnerable to changes in water flow caused by dams upstream. These differences have hindered transboundary water governance. For instance, the reason China has not joined the MRC is that the MRC offers more advantages to downstream countries and simultaneously constrains China, as Lu argues in an analysis of China’s cooperation policies in the Mekong region. As a result, China remains a Dialogue Partner to the MRC, rather than subject to MRC attempts to collaboratively manage water in the Mekong basin. Divergent national interests subsequently cause transboundary governance to falter. It is further exacerbated by a power asymmetry in the region.
The second factor inhibiting regional water governance over hydropower development is the power asymmetry amongst countries. China is the water hegemon of the Mekong region since it controls the source of the Mekong. With control of water, China can influence other countries to forward its own ends, rather than cooperating with them. In Han’s argument that power asymmetry is a factor inhibiting collaborative governance of the Mekong, Han describes that China has little incentive to cooperate with downstream countries as China can use its control of water as a bargaining chip. Moreover, China is also a hegemon in terms of size and resources. While a coalition of countries against regional hegemon Egypt helped resolve management issues in the Nile Basin, Tong’s evaluation of the potential for Mekong sustainable development determines such a solution is impossible in the Mekong. China is not only water hegemon, but is also significantly larger, more powerful, and has more resources than the other Mekong countries. This power asymmetry thus prevents an anti-hegemon coalition from forming. With power asymmetry in its favour, there is little motivation for China to support transboundary governance. In an article analyzing asymmetry in Chinese southbound river basins, Kattelus et al. concurs, saying that China joining a regional discussion essentially eliminates the advantage China has, since “participating in a regional discussion […] would most probably provide a less powerful position and could even lead to situations where downstream countries create alliances against China.” Consequently, given the asymmetrical advantages China enjoys as regional hegemon, there is little reason for China to participate in transboundary water governance. Without participation from all water users, transboundary water governance will not succeed.
The third reason why transboundary water governance has failed in the Mekong lies in the region’s institutions. Numerous scholars recognize the MRC and Greater Mekong Sub-region Initiative (GMS) as the two key regional institutions that facilitate cooperation. So far, neither has been successful at facilitating transboundary water governance. The MRC aims to jointly manage water while balancing economic development. However, the MRC is unable to impact its members’ national policies. Grumbine et al.’s examination of governance challenges for Mekong region hydropower identify the 1995 Mekong Agreement that established the MRC as cause of this, as it allows members to ignore the MRC’s recommendations. Suhardiman, who examines transboundary governance of the Mekong, concurs that the MRC “lacks power to direct transboundary water governance issues in the region” and describes the MRC as disconnected from national decision-making processes. Additionally, the way MRC does not include all riparian countries undermines the MRC’s ability to govern the entire Mekong basin, as discussed earlier. As such, though the MRC intends to manage water sustainably, its inability to coordinate national policies from all riparian countries towards this goal makes it an ineffective institution for transboundary water governance.
The second regional institution, the GMS, also fails to provide transboundary water governance. Launched by the Asian Development Bank to enhance economic cooperation, the GMS includes all riparian countries. It fails to foster transboundary water governance though due to its mission and the way it undermines the MRC’s mission. To Han, the focus on improving economic cooperation limits the GMS and its ability to be comprehensive enough to serve as a transboundary water governance institution for the Mekong. This GMS focus also causes it to favour hydropower development for economic growth, regardless of the MRC’s Strategic Environmental Assessment recommendations to halt construction. Thus, the GMS contrasts directly with the MRC’s efforts, and in fact marginalizes the MRC. As a result, GMS fails to provide and undermines transboundary water governance in the Mekong. With diverging national interests, power asymmetries amongst countries, and weakness of existing institutions, there is no transboundary water governance of the Mekong that ensures its sustainable use.
Though the LMC promises greater cooperation on regional water use, it will not overcome the obstacles to transboundary governance over hydropower. The LMC gathers all Mekong basin countries and aims to facilitate data sharing as part of cooperation on water resource management. One of the LMC’s three core purposes is to pursue economic and sustainable development as well. Nonetheless, the LMC will not succeed because the LMC is a China-led mechanism that continues the regional power asymmetry to further Chinese national interests. In an article studying the LMC, Bunyavejchewin states that though there is conflict over whether Thailand or China first proposed the idea, what remains clear is that China has taken charge of it. The LMC promotes regional cooperation to further Chinese goals. Lu identifies the LMC as the centre of China’s recent increased cooperation with the Mekong region. Through the LMC, China aims to ameliorate relations amid the growing power disparity between China and the other Mekong countries, while avoiding the unwanted effects of China’s past approach of using economic cooperation to foster political relations. This does not mean the LMC resolves power asymmetries. Fernandez’s analysis of the LMC says that the LMC only reflects a change in China’s approach to a softer one, for the LMC offers China a way to “temper downstream complaints concerning Chinese construction of large-scale dams on the mainstream Mekong.” This feature, along with the LMC’s focus on sustainable and economic development, supports a continuation of Biba’s argument that downstream resistance to Chinese dam projects is minimal because China has successfully linked hydropower to wider regional development. Clearly, the LMC resolves neither diverging national interests nor power asymmetry. China in fact has created a multilateral mechanism that serves its own national interests. In this case, since the LMC is an uneven playing field where China’s preferences will be valued over others’ preferences, the LMC will not address the problems of national interests and power asymmetry that inhibit transboundary water governance.
Furthermore, the LMC is not designed to facilitate transboundary governance over water resources. One of its five initial priority areas is supporting cooperation towards better water resource management. This falls short of joint management of Mekong water resources, let alone guaranteeing country policies are harmonized with regional-level agreements on water. In this sense, the LMC lives up to its promise of complementing existing regional institutions. The LMC will not replace the MRC by taking up the MRC’s role of providing transboundary water governance. Considering that the LMC consists of all riparian countries like the GMS, the LMC may follow the GMS’ footsteps and actually contribute to the marginalization of the MRC. Such an outcome would align with Bunyavechewin’s evaluation that China developed the LMC to posit itself as leader in the region by excluding powers like Japan that were dominant in the MRC and GMS. As a result of its design and purpose, the LMC will not support sustainable use of the Mekong via facilitating transboundary water governance. The LMC is China-led to fulfill Chinese purposes first and foremost, and it does not aim to provide water governance, only water cooperation.
In conclusion, the LMC will not contribute to the water governance necessary to address the challenges to sustainability that hydropower development pose. Hydropower development threatens sustainable use of the Mekong as it impacts other Mekong users and is undertaken without appropriate international agreement. Hydropower projects proceed unchecked and threaten Mekong sustainability because lack of transboundary water governance has persisted. Transboundary water governance of the Mekong has failed due to three factors: Mekong countries have contrasting national interests, a power asymmetry exists among countries, and current institutions have proven unable to provide transboundary water governance. The LMC does not resolve these three obstacles to transboundary water governance in the Mekong basin. China, leader of the LMC, in fact uses the LMC to moderate the basin’s countries. This helps advance Chinese national goals and maintains the power asymmetry. The LMC is also not effective for transboundary water governance as it focuses on cooperation towards management, but not management or decision-making itself. In addition, the LMC may detract from existing institutions like the MRC that attempts to provide water governance. Thus, the LMC, although a promising step towards regional cooperation that could enhance sustainability, does not offer the transboundary governance necessary to resolve the threats hydropower poses to sustainable use of the Mekong.
About the Author
Verna Yam is from the unceded territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh people, known to many as Vancouver, Canada. She completed her Bachelor in International Relations at the University of British Columbia and is now pursuing a Master’s in International Affairs at Carleton University, where she focuses on Canada-Asia relations and environmental cooperation.
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