IAPS Dialogue: The online magazine of the Institute of Asia & Pacific Studies

Water conflicts and development in the Mekong: What role for ASEAN?

Written by Oliver Hensengerth.

For decades, continental Southeast Asia has inspired regional countries and powers worldwide to create development initiatives for the Mekong basin. The source of this inspiration is the Mekong River. From the Greater Mekong Subregion to the Mekong River Commission (with roots in the 1957 Mekong Committee), the US-driven Lower Mekong Initiative, and as of late the China-driven Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (to name but a few), the Mekong River has fired up the imagination of politicians in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, China, Japan, Europe, Australia and the United States. ASEAN as a body is conspicuously absent here.

Harnessed in a collaborative and participatory way, Mekong River development could create inclusive development for all – rural communities, urban residents, majority populations and ethnic minorities without threatening the latter’s cultural survival.

This is despite the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation. This was a core initiative with which ASEAN wanted to make funds available for infrastructure development in what was then a war-ravaged part of Southeast Asia. It fell victim to the Asian Financial Crisis and has since lacked strategic vision and funds.

To be sure, the latest incarnation of Mekong River development is the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, floated during the 2014 China-ASEAN Summit. It was inaugurated in 2015, but it was largely a Thai-Chinese initiative. It covers a number of areas, including infrastructure connectivity, but also water resources – an area where China has so far refused to cooperate in meaningful ways with downstream countries.

The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is in parts an iteration of China’s One Belt One Road connectivity strategy. Beijing views the Mekong basin countries as a key economic area and is keen to assist infrastructure development there. While ASEAN has its eyes set on the economic prize that might be the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, another development initiative might already be in its death throws: the Mekong River Commission of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Indeed, little can be heard in ASEAN about how to rescue the Mekong River Commission – a donor-driven organization tasked with the environmentally and socially sustainable development of the Lower Mekong basin. This is a key task given the hydropower boom that has taken hold of the Lower Mekong. The Mekong River Commission has been bedeviled by its inability to reconcile a number of high-profile conflicts among its member states over hydropower development, including most recently Xayaburi and Don Sahong, which are the first two of eleven Mekong mainstem dams to be realized. As a consequence, donor contributions have plummeted at a time when the Commission is in a crucial reform process of decentralization and riparianization.

The Mekong River Commission is based on an international treaty and a set of binding water usage rules designed to carefully manage the exploitation of water resources, while safeguarding the livelihoods of riverside communities. It is therefore unloved by many in its member countries, particularly the energy bureaucracies who pursue the rapid expansion of hydropower. It is also unloved by China, which has refused cooperation with the Commission beyond wet season data sharing. China felt compelled to share dry season data only for a brief period following the 2010 drought which caused region-wide public outrage, with many pointing the finger – justified or not – at Beijing’s unilateral upstream dam-building.

Indeed, China’s refusal to collaborate more closely with the Commission could lead to accusations of deliberately bypassing the Mekong River Commission by creating a new mechanism in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. Beijing may thus be able to collaborate with downstream countries on water resources development without binding itself to a set of international water rules.

Yet, the Mekong River Commission is perhaps the only organization that – owing to its mandate – has the ability to ensure that local riverside communities do not become the losers of Mekong River development. In addition to the eleven mainstream dams, a flurry of dams is already built, planned or under construction on Mekong tributaries and on rivers outside of the Mekong’s system, including on the Irrawaddy and on the Salween. Amongst the most controversial of these is the Lower Sesan 2 Dam in Cambodia. Local environmental organizations along with conservation, fisheries and other experts have rung the alarm bells as the dam is forecast to lead to a significant drop in biodiversity with impacts on food security. It is also posing a threat to the cultural survival of the indigenous communities that had to make way for the reservoir. Its location on the 3S River system, a part of the Mekong River system, is also forecast to influence the flow regime of the Mekong with impact on the Tonle Sap and the Mekong Delta.

But not only international experts and local environmental organizations have spoken out, as might be expected. Increasingly local communities put up stiff resistance to hydropower across the region. In Myanmar, examples of sustained community resistance include the Mong Ton Dam on the Salween and the Myitsone Dam on the Irrawaddy. In Cambodia, local resistance forced the government to suspend the Cheay Areng Dam on the Areng River. Lower Sesan 2 has also seen an acrimonious conflict between local communities and the government, but under pressure and some coercion most locals have by now given up and have accepted resettlement and compensation offers.

Lancang-Mekong Cooperation announcements of its agenda offer little hope that the mechanism will resolve these bitter and at times violent water conflicts. ASEAN itself is also silent. Yet, the fate of the Mekong’s waters are key for the region’s social, environmental and economic future. Harnessed in a collaborative and participatory way, Mekong River development could create inclusive development for all – rural communities, urban residents, majority populations and ethnic minorities without threatening the latter’s cultural survival. Infrastructure investment from China, including from the AIIB, certainly is to be welcomed to fill funding gaps. In addition, the inclusion of water resources in the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation is potentially a step in the right direction if it means genuinely participatory and basin-wide water resources planning for inclusive Mekong development. Yet, given the agenda so far, endorsing the mechanism may not be enough for ASEAN to ensure inclusive development in a key area of its future economic and social development.

Oliver Hensengerth (@Ohensengerth) is a senior lecturer at at the University of Northumbria. His research focuses on water governance and transboundary water cooperation, with a particular focus on the Mekong river basin and Southeast Asia. Image credit: CC by Water, Land and Ecosystems/Flickr.