Chinese Control of the Mekong River Delta

Image Caption: Flash flooding as a result of a collapsed dam in Laos led to the deaths of at least 40 people and caused several dozen others to go missing this summer, implicating complex geo-political conflicts between China and other Southeast Asian countries that share the Mekong river.

Following months of heavy July monsoon rains, the small landlocked nation of Laos faced a grim reminder of the disastrous possibilities damming the Mekong. A subsidiary dam of the Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric dam, known as “Saddle Dam D,” collapsed after enduring growing fractures. What resulted was a flash flood of disastrous proportions, precipitating the deaths of 40 people, 98 missing persons, and the displacement of 6600 villagers in the nation’s southern Attapeu province.

The Mekong River — roughly translated as “mother river” in many Tai dialects — has for countless generations been viewed by the millions of inhabitants along its banks as a giver of civilization, a lifeblood of communities. The river begins on the Tibetan Plateau in China; in Tibet, it is known as the Dzachu, and in other regions of China, the Lancang. The Chinese portion of the Mekong comprises approximately half the length of the entire river;it then runs a subsequent 3,000 miles through five Southeast Asian countries (Myanmar, Laos, Thailand Cambodia and Vietnam) before emptying into the South China Sea via the sprawling Mekong Delta.

However, despite the Mekong’s status as a near-sacred river long before the formation of nation states and the delimitation of today’s borders, the river has undoubtedly been the root cause of considerable socio-political distress in recent times. As populations grew exponentially and the water needed to fuel such growth became increasingly scarce, countries located upstream with significant control over the river — namely China — have sought to harness flowing waters for purposes such as hydropower and irrigation. As such, the rapid and frequent damming of the upper Mekong has severely affected downstream states’ ecologies and economies.  China’s iron-fisted grip on the riparian states of the lower basin stems from its reliance on hydropower, an energy source second only to coal power in prevalence of use, and the authoritarian nature of China’s government does little to slow down the proliferation of hydropower structures;

The People’s Republic of China currently has ten fully operational dams working on the upper basin of the river, and has several others planned, according to the Stimson Institute. Such dams cause water levels to fluctuate artificially, an unnatural effect that is often extremely drastic, resulting in, for example, dire ecological consequences for endemic species, such as the giant Mekong catfish, the population of which is radically dwindling. Furthermore, agricultural communities whose livelihoods depend on the river are often not made privy to Chinese control of water levels, and as such, are vulnerable and susceptible to unbeknown flash floods that destroy agricultural output.

Damming the river certainly stems from political motives, allowing China to increasingly manifest its control over the flow of resources on the Mekong. It is the byproduct of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the country’s flagship economic development policy involving investment in infrastructure and development across emerging nations worldwide. Experts and other governments have criticized the Chinese initiative as using  exclusively Chinese factors of production — Chinese planners, materials, and labor —in foreign projects, precluding the use of the host nation’s own human capital and resources and effectively resulting in a loss of sovereignty over the projects. A particular example of this is China’s planned dam in Cambodia’s lower Mekong basin, which, according to some analysts, would “literally kill the Mekong.” These projects, established under the pretext of development, serve to expand Chinese influence more broadly in Southeast Asia

Through modifying the Mekong for its own needs, China’s control of the river’s upper and lower basins would effectively “sandwich” Southeast Asia; powers such as the United States do not have as vested an interest in the river basin and mainland Southeast Asia as they do in the South China Sea, and as such, would not be inclined to act as a check to China’s rapid expansion of influence in the Mekong basin.

Bodies such as the intergovernmental Mekong Commission exist to prevent the wholesale degradation of the river. But new measures may be necessary to check the rapidly spreading influence of Southeast Asia’s northern neighbour. We should call on powers to be effective arbitrators and use multilateral organizations to take more resolute stances in preventing river’s complete degradation, protecting the river’s ecology and thereby the economic livelihoods of common people along the Mekong.