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Navigating Hydro-power along the Mekong River

Published 15 Nov 2018
Nicole King

Solar and hydro are generally the first items that come to one’s mind when thinking about prominent renewable energy generation. Over 60 countries generate half of their electricity from hydropower. However, the feasibility of hydroelectricity projects is increasingly fraught with complex geopolitical problems, especially when the social, economic, and environmental effects of such projects cross state boundaries. This is exemplified by the various dispute by a range of parties along the Mekong River – a river system that traverses over six different national borders and provides for approximately 72 million people? How do you effectively and ethically organise hydro power for such a river?

China is already one of the most powerful countries in terms of its population and economic strength in east and south-east Asia. It is also the most upper riparian nation and thus has the most control over the state and quality of the river system for lower nations. China has already built six major dams on the upper Mekong and hopes to build more. Laos, another upper riparian country, wants to become the battery of Asia. Whilst Thailand is one of the countries that is using Laos to obtain hydroelectricity to meet its increasing demands, it has the ability to construct dams. However, the Thai government recognised the huge negative impacts such dams can have on the environment and the livelihoods of its citizens and has promised there would be no more domestic dam construction. Instead the Thai Government has been funding dam projects in Laos, effectively exporting the negative externalities. Cambodia and Vietnam are the lowest countries connected to the Mekong and are also involved in developing their hydropower. However, they also stand to receive most of the negative impacts.

Hydro-electric dams are mega-projects that totally transform the surrounding ecosystem with effects flowing onto the rest of the river system it is attached to. Dams block migratory fish patterns, changing habitats whilst affecting water temperature and oxygen levels. The Mekong has some of the most abundant inland fisheries which are vital for the people in this area as a large part of their diet and income. The annual value of the river’s fisheries for the whole of the Mekong is estimated to be 3.9 to 7 billion US dollars.  A key factor in maintaining the biodiversity and productivity of the river system is the river flow regime driven by monsoon rains, often called the annual flood pulse. The flood pulse transports large amounts of sediment and nutrients along the river and has created diverse floodplain habitats. This sedimentation is crucial for the rice fields in Vietnam, 50% of which are located on the banks of the Mekong. Upstream dams trap sedimentation, reducing not only the capacity of the dams themselves, but also disrupting the integral role sedimentation plays in downstream ecosystems.

Cooperation for the use of the river system was first attempted with the creation of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in 1995, but only 4 countries agreed to join and work towards “equitable utilisation.” By refusing to join, China and Myanmar hampered cooperation which resulted in the MRC’s weak institutional capacity. Over time however, China has become more cooperative by providing data on water-levels in the flood season and cancelled the construction of some of its dams. This culminated with creation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC) in 2015.

However, questions remain over the authenticity of this cooperation due to the lack of transparency and non-involvement of the public in the decision-making process. Although information sharing exists, there is still a substantial amount of information about the impacts of the dams that remain inaccessible and that China regards as “state secrets” imperative to national security.

There is also speculation surrounding the true reasons behind China’s newfound cooperative stance. As leader of the LMC, China may be seeking to establish itself as a regional hegemon. It may well be used as other multi-lateral bodies created by China have been, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; to allow Beijing increased power to take initiatives and set rules. China hopes to gain control over security along the southern part of the Mekong to ensure trade and to stem criticism from lower riparian countries.

Time will tell as to the LMC’s effectiveness. China has previously set the tone for upper riparian countries to disregard the impacts of dams downstream. Laos who was a part of the MRC constructed 3 major dams without seeking consensus when developing and implementing these projects. There are still major differences in how states prioritize the use of the river. China and Laos both hope to become major exporters of electricity to the region whilst Thailand seeks to implement large-scale irrigation expansions. Conversely, Cambodia remains increasingly concerned about food security and Vietnam is worried about rising saline levels in the Mekong river delta – issues both caused and exacerbated by dam construction.

For the LMC to be truly effective in improving relations between the countries, further transparency with data is required – especially regarding the impacts of the dams. Agreements on the regulation of water flow, adoption of mitigation technologies and information included in social and environmental impact assessments are also needed. These assessments must look beyond domestic implications and include international implications. Ultimately, all countries must determine whether the benefits of energy production outweigh the corresponding environmental losses and all other social and economic detriments that come with them.

Nicole King is in her final year of a double degree in Arts (Government and International Relations, Spanish and Latin American Studies) and Economics (Environmental and Resource Economics) at the University of Sydney. She has participated in language exchange programs in both Belgium and Spain, which is where her passion for international relations began. Nicole’s main interests are in environmental politics and international security, and in particular how those two areas intersect and relate to one another. Having previously interned with the Diplomacy Training Program she is also concerned about human rights issues.

Nicole is currently undertaking an internship with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.