The Mekong River Commission as a Water Diplomat

The Mekong River Basin is undergoing rapid changes following previous earlier infrastructure developments. The construction of water and related infrastructures, especially the first two mainstream hydropower dams in the Lower Mekong River Basin, has ignited fierce debates, public contestations, and alarming talks about water tensions and possible conflicts in a historically warring region and a current geostrategic hotspot of major power rivalries that is mainland Southeast Asia. This chapter argues that the Mekong River Commission (MRC), as the only water treaty-based organization of the Mekong, has played an increasing role in water conflict management in the last two decades by facilitating and supporting water-related negotiations for the sustainable management of the basin. While the MRC has faced challenges in bringing the countries together, it has managed to establish itself as a knowledge hub and water diplomacy platform. The three examples of how the MRC handles the consultations over the Lower Mekong mainstream dams of Xayaburi, Don Sahong, and the proposed Pak Beng1 serve as cases to illustrate the organization’s water diplomacy framework in action.2

The Mekong River Basin and MRC put into context

The Mekong is one of the planet’s great rivers. With a length of approximately 4,763 km, it is the twelfth longest river of the world, draining an area of approximately 810,000 km2. Its source is in the Tibetan Plateau, China, where it descends roughly 4,000 m before flowing through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam into the South China Sea.3 The Upper Mekong, called Lancang in China, may contribute up to 40 percent of flow during the dry season. Overall, most Mekong flow comes from the tributaries of the Lower Mekong River Basin.4

The Lower Mekong River Basin is bigger and more habitable than the river valleys in the highlands of the Upper Mekong River Basin. Approximately 65 million people live in the lower basin; about 12 million more than in the year 2000. Population growth has slowed down with rapidly developing economies and socioeconomic change. At the same time, there has been a rise in urbanization (e.g., Vientiane, Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchaathani, Phnom Penh, and Can Tho), though rural populations remain high in the basin, with most people working in the agricultural sector. In their endeavor to alleviate poverty and meet regional demands, Laos and Cambodia have also made increased use of hydropower development in the early twenty-first century, while Thailand and Vietnam have mostly exhausted their hydropower and other developments.5

The existing electricity generating capacity of the Lower Mekong River Basin was estimated at 10,017 megawatts (MW) in 2015, out of a potential technical capacity of 28,543 MW. Eleven Mekong mainstream dams are planned—seven in Laos, two on the Lao-Thai border, and two in Cambodia, with the first dam, Xayaburi, coming into operation in 2019. Tributary dams, mostly developed in Thailand and Vietnam, have also seen further development in Laos and Cambodia. In the Upper Mekong River Basin, China has already built a number of large storage dams, with an installed hydropower capacity of 19,285 MW in 2017, and a planned increase to 29,168 MW. While agriculture is highly developed in Thailand and Vietnam, this is less so in Laos and Cambodia, though the latter countries plan to expand farming areas.6

External influences and early development plans

The Mekong region could be classified as a “shatterbelt”—a term coined for the few regions on earth which are caught between regional conflicts and conflicting influences of external powers.7 Major powers that have intervened at some point in history include Britain, France, the United States, Soviet Union/Russia, Japan, and China. Even during times of peace, national and regional processes have been influenced by international and foreign initiatives.

Starting in the 1950s, the United Nations (UN) and the United States undertook various missions and investigations in an attempt to study and develop the Mekong. Influenced by these, the Mekong Committee, the predecessor of the MRC established under the UN, elaborated the 1970 Indicative Basin Plan with some 180 projects, including a US$2 billion short-term program for 700,000 ha of irrigation expansion and tributary hydropower development as well as a US$10 billion long-term program comprising a cascade of mainstream dams. In 1987, this plan was downscaled to 29 projects by the Interim Mekong Committee (interim because Cambodia was out of the committee as a result of internal conflicts). Due to regional military conflicts and a legal hurdle for mainstream dams,8 much of the Indicative Basin Plan was never implemented, save some hydropower in the tributaries. In 1995, the four Lower Mekong riparians negotiated a new treaty, the Mekong Agreement of the MRC—in full, the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin—between Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

A year before the creation of the MRC, France’s Compagnie Nationale du Rhone (CNR) led a study for the Interim Mekong Committee called the 1994 Mekong Mainstream Run of River Hydropower. This study, not considered again in formal MRC meetings, has been influential in the countries, introducing a major shift away from storage to run of river dams. At that time, the MRC member countries could not agree on a basin plan due to different perspectives. Moreover, influential key donors in the early years up to 2010 have promoted the MRC’s role as a knowledge hub rather than an enabler for infrastructure projects. Hence, in the course of the twenty-first century, the riparian countries moved ahead with the implementation of projects based on national interest, with the MRC not yet playing a role in altering the number and location of mainstream dams. This is also related to the fact that energy and water resources planning has not been well integrated. Energy-related decisions, such as power master plans and electricity trade agreements, have had a major influence on the water sector, where the private sector and other regional mechanisms, e.g., the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the Asian Development Bank-supported Greater Mekong Subregion Program and others, have traditionally been involved.

The Mekong River Basin’s unique biodiversity

While hydropower has economic benefits, it is also known to have environmental and social drawbacks, especially when dams are not properly designed, with environmental and social standards lacking. In the 1990s and early 2000s, controversies around the Pak Mun Dam in Thailand and Yali Falls Dam in Vietnam were the first visible cases of public contestation in the Lower Mekong River Basin. Hydropower development in the Lower Mekong River Basin has drawn international attention as the Mekong is extraordinarily high in biodiversity—the

The Mekong River Commission 245 world’s second most species-rich region after the Amazon, supporting millions of livelihoods. Its status as one of the last almost untamed great rivers of the world and the need to remain so also brings out particular passion among global environmental activists.

The Mekong River Basin comprises significant ecosystem types such as rivers, wetlands, forests, and grasslands. The Mekong wetlands are of economic, cultural, and social importance. The Mekong waterbody, the world’s most fauna-diverse river, includes key environmental features, mostly caused by the Southwest Monsoon generating high seasonal flow variation, including the water flow reversal to and from the Tonle Sap Lake. Deep pools serve as refuge and spawning habitats for a variety of fish species, whereas drier sandy habitats are crucial for vegetation, amphibians, reptiles, and birds.9

The analysis shows that current national hydropower plans are sub-optimal as they combine both beneficial and nonbeneficial projects from an economic and environmental point of view. If these are implemented, impacts related to Mekong tributary and mainstream hydropower development are predicted to be substantial. Crucial disrupting factors include the alteration of the flow regime, barriers for fish migration paths, and trapping of sediments.10

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