Introduction: Economic growth and community construction in the Greater Mekong Subregion

A nourishing and inspiring “mother”

Originating from the Tibetan Plateau and emptying into the South China Sea, the Mekong River flows through China (Yunnan Province), Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The “Mother of Rivers”, mae khong, 1 has not merely carved out this unique Subregion, which has a landmass the size of Western Europe and a population close to that of the US.2 It has also provided tens of millions of the region’s riparian residents with food and livelihoods.3 The Mekong has moreover served as an essential means for intra-regional transport, social interactions, and cultural activities.4 Being the eighth largest river in the world measured by water flow,5 the Mekong has meanwhile endowed the region with immense resources for small-to-large-scale hydropower projects and irrigation systems.

The Mekong is often acknowledged as one of the world’s last great rivers to remain mostly undammed.6 Indeed, with few large cities, a relatively sparse population, and little industry along its course, the River is arguably the least exploited among the major rivers in the world. Decades of violent conflicts and civil strife in recent history' have also resulted in much of the region being frequently referred to as undeveloped and stuck in economic stagnation. As the great majority' of the 300-plus million people in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) still live subsistence or semi-subsistence agricultural lifestyles, poverty' is believed to be endemic.7 With peace settling in the whole of Indochina since the early 1990s, however, the Subregion has experienced a significant turnaround. The six member states have devised a range of national, bilateral, and multilateral development schemes for banking on the rich resources of the Mekong. By' the second Subregion leaders’ summit held in July' 2005, more than a hundred development projects had been jointly launched in energy, agriculture, transportation, telecommunications, trade and investment, tourism, environment, and human resources.8

Poverty’ reduction is a primary' mission for all six governments. It thus follows that economic growth invariably dominates their domestic and foreign policy' deliberations. Furthermore, they' all seem to espouse the idea that harnessing the resources of the Mekong would serve as a most effective springboard for their respective economic development. This belief is put in words by Cambodia’s former Minister of Transportation Khy Tainglim, who say's that the Mekong “is our oil, our mines of gold, our main natural resource, and we should use our water to export and get foreign currency to develop the country”.9 Indeed, to raise living standards, the six countries in the Subregion have all been committed to promoting and facilitating infrastructure networking for hydropower development and transfer, flood control and irrigation, improved navigation channels, and easier cross-border movement of goods and people.10

An asymmetrical common-pool resource

Yet while the economic imperative enjoys common primacy throughout the Subregion, the six member states differ in the rates and pace of their economic and social development. The disparity' and corollary' power differential have unsurprisingly bred anxieties over uneven distribution of the Mekong resources and potentials among the riparian states and communities.11 Striving to ensure an adequate measure of fair and equitable resource sharing, the six countries are actively engaged in diplomatic negotiations and joint development programmes. At the same time, however, they' have also been racing to maximise their own benefits from the Mekong by pressing ahead with national hydroelectric, water diversion, and channel dredging projects on the stretches of the river or its tributaries within their respective boundaries. The fear that ever more development schemes are being introduced or implemented without sufficient region-wide consultation has led many to worry that resource rivalries may ultimately become the fault lines between the countries in the Mekong area.12

An international/regional river such as the Mekong perhaps projects a worstcase scenario for problems surrounding common pool resources. Not only' may' the use of the river by one party limit the access of others to its potential consumptive benefits, but the consequences of the former’s exploitation may also “flow” with the water to the latter.13 Meanwhile, efforts to coordinate the development in the Mekong region are often challenged by the sensitive issue of sovereignty' and the “ASEAN way” of non-interference. The upstream-down-stream problem in relation to the shared resources is further complicated by' the fact that divergent interests and priorities of the states in the Subregion have resulted in their different reactions to controversial projects initiated by' members of the community' unilaterally, or through bilateral or multilateral arrangements.14 An often cited example in this regard is the Lancang-Mekong Navigation Improvement Project signed in 2000 by' China, Thailand, Lao PDR, and Myanmar. The scheme is aimed at facilitating trade and tourism by opening the route to vessels of up to 500 tons. Yet the removal of reefs, shoals, and rapids necessitated by the project reportedly' has Cambodia and Vietnam down the stream worried about the impact of altered river flows on their farming and other production activities.15 While impact studies within and without the region since 2000 have yet to reach any' convincing or consoling conclusions, the 2015-25 Development Plan of the Langcang-Mekong navigation project has nevertheless been set in motion.16

In addition to issues of asymmetric distribution among the GMS countries of benefits and consequences from the development of the shared river, economic growth pressures, in the forms of hydroelectric dams, industrial development, intensive farming, rapid urbanisation, and navigation improvement attempts have also given rise to serious concerns about increasing environmental, ecological, social, cultural, and livelihood disturbances. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs), environmental advocates, scientists, and academics have been particularly vocal about potential adverse impacts and undesirable effects of many development initiatives that are proposed and/or already under way in the region.17 They call into question the widespread discursive classification that reduces social, cultural, economic, ecological, and geographic specificities of the region to a homogenous lot of economic “challenges” and “opportunities”.18 They urge planners and developers to provide explicit terms of reference for the public to assess social and environmental impacts of projects with potential transboundary effects.19 They challenge the paternalistic attitude of many political elites and institutional donors who insist on development “for” the people rather than “by” the people.20 They argue that failing to uphold visions of, or to consult with, the affected peoples and communities in the region, development projects would only serve the interests of donor countries, international lending agencies, and/or private investors, who are vying for contracts or opportunities to exploit the vast and varied natural resources in the region.21 They worry that local communities will be left only to deal with the economic, social, and cultural consequences such as displacement of families, removal from ancestral homeland, destruction of agricultural fields, and alienation from traditional livelihood resources.22

 
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