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Wednesday, 14 December 2016 09:45
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Water insecurity in the Mekong River and its consequences for the region

(LLCT) - Mekong is one of the ten largest rivers in the world. It flows through six nations and its biodiversity ranks second in the world in terms of scale. At present, scores of hydroelectric dam projects on the main stem of the River and its tributaries, coupled with the impact of climate change, are posing a serious threat to water security. 

1. Causes of water insecurity in the Mekong River

There are differences in sharing national interests. Although they share common geographical features of the Mekong River, each of the countries along it has its own priorities and interests. For instance, Thailand needs water to develop agriculture in its northeastern region; Laos needs capital and expertise to develop hydroelectricity; Cambodia needs guarantee of fish resources in its Tonle Sap; and Vietnam needs water for agriculture in its Cuu Long River Delta.

Because a country has the right to decide how to use the river on its territory, it may unilaterally carry out its plans and projects without taking into consideration the common good of the river and the interests of the other countries. The countries cannot agree on a policy or guiding principle for ensuring water security in the river. Currently, China and Laos are building hydroelectric dams on the trunk of the river despite opposition from the countries in the downstream areas. They are doing this without taking into account the sustainable development of the river. Therefore, only when there is reasonable sharing of interests between countries in the upstream areas and those in the downstream areas of the river through binding agreements can water security in the river be ensured.

The exploitation and use of Mekong River water, especially the construction and operation of hydroelectric dams, pose a major threat to water security in the river. Lower Mekong countries’ demands for electricity generation are estimated to increase by 6.9 per cent annually on average or about 616,000 billion watts per hour (1). All the countries in the lower Mekong region are developing hydroelectricity to meet their growing demands for energy and advance their economies, thereby creating a hydroelectricity race in the region.

China’s hydroelectric potential in upstream areas is among the world’s largest(2). Its upper Mekong region hydroelectric development program began in 1986. Under the program, 15 large hydroelectric dams will be built on the main stream of the river, and half of them have been constructed so far. The total water volume in the reservoirs of these 15 dams is about 55 billion cubic meters, and the total capacity of the hydroelectric plants under this program is about 24 GW(3). As far as the downstream areas of the river are concerned, a lot of hydroelectric dam projects are underway, 10 in the main stream flowing through Laos and Thailand, and two in Cambodia. Among the downstream countries in the region, Laos has the largest hydroelectric potential and the biggest number of hydropower projects. It has 16 dams on different affluents of the Mekong River with nine of them being under construction; 23 other dams are underway with five of them on the main stream of the river. (Two dams which have caused the most controversy among the downstream countries are Don Sahong and Xayaburi.) The 32 meter-high Xayaburi Dam has a capacity of 1,260 MW, and costs 3.5 billion USD to be built(4).

Vietnam also has hydroelectric projects on the branches of the Mekong River, including the Sesan, Serepok and Sekong Rivers.

The building of hydroelectric dams on the trunk of the Mekong River in China, Laos, Thailand and Myanmar is causing concerns among the Mekong countries, especially since the Xiaowan Dam, which is 292 meters high and has a capacity of 4,200 MW, went into operation in 2009. To fill up this 15-billion-cubic-meter reservoir requires half of the water in the upstream sections of the Mekong River for 5-10 straight years.

Cooperative mechanisms are not effective. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was officially founded in 1995 as an intergovernmental cooperation organization of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, which deals with these countries’ particular shared interests including water resource management in general and sustainable development of the river in particular. The MRC was established based on the spirit of the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin of 1995. Since its establishment, the MRC has passed numerous regulations and procedures and has become a consulting body to provide information on various areas such as fishing, traffic, waterways, flood and drought control, environment, and hydroelectricity. However, these mechanisms are not really effective because the MRC is not a decision-making organization and does not have enforcing authority, and its regulations are not binding upon its member nations.

The Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) is a development cooperation organization founded in 1992 thanks to active support from Japan and particularly the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The GMS is the most complete program for cooperation in the Mekong subregion, which consists of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi. Although including six countries with the goal of building trust and promoting regional cooperation, the GMS does not really run activities directly related to the ensuring of water security.

The Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) was introduced on 23 July 2009 at a meeting between US Foreign Secretary Hillary Clinton and the foreign ministers of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in Thailand. This is a US initiative aimed at promoting cooperation between the lower Mekong countries and increasing their ability to cope with nontraditional security challenges or trans-border issues. However, it is very difficult for the LMI to prevent directly the building of dams by countries and ultimately ensure water security in the Mekong River because China, an upstream country, does not participate in this initiative. 

The main reason for the ineffectiveness of the mechanisms originates from differences in interests between the countries when they take part in them. China and Myanmar are not official members of the MRC yet. Although China has elevated its status from a partner country to an observer and has begun to cooperate in some issues, its willingness to intensify its cooperation has not improved much. Meanwhile, Vietnam and Cambodia require multilateral mechanisms to take a greater role in controlling upstream countries’ actions which may be detrimental to the downstream areas of the river. On the other hands, Thailand and Laos, which are in the middle areas of the river, will continue to campaign for general rules applicable for all countries along the river.

2. Implications of water insecurity in the Mekong River   

Consequences for the ecology of the river. Objectively, climate change is exacerbating flooding, drought, water depletion and salt water penetration. In many areas of the river basin, the temperature is forecasted to rise by 0.8 degrees Celsius by 2030 and, at the same time, rainfall will drop in the dry season and there will be droughts and water shortages (5).

Subjectively, dams in China and some downstream countries are presenting considerable challenges to the river and natural resources. Mainstream projects will undermine the linear integrity and connectivity of the Mekong River ecology. The dams will turn 55 per cent of the lower section of the river into stagnant reservoirs and some sections of the river will flow faster after the dams. These changes will transform the natural flow of the river because the river cannot hold flood in control or regulate water during seasonal changeovers as it does now. As a consequence, the flow, aquatic environment and enormous ecology of the Mekong River will be threatened; more than 100 species of animals will be endangered(6). Losses of the biodiversity of the river will be permanent and cannot be recovered. Mainstream projects can cause serious environmental damage on land and do harm to wetlands. Nearly 40 per cent of wetlands in the Mekong River are located in where these projects are based and 17 per cent of them will be submerged forever due to mainstream projects in the downstream areas of the river(7).

Implications for the relevant countries. Water insecurity in the Mekong River will not only take its toll on the ecology of the river, but also more seriously affect the economies and societies of the countries sharing the river. Firstly, this is a region where food security and livelihoods depend largely on the river and its natural resources. Risks and losses to the aquatic and ground-level ecology of the river will directly lead to threats to the livelihoods of millions of people and result in food insecurity. More specifically, agricultural losses caused by flooding from reservoirs can be equivalent to more than $5 million each year. Fertile alluvium is predicted to decrease by more than half, which means extra fertilizers will be needed and will cost 24 million USD each year(8). In addition, the dams will block migratory routes of fishes, reduce the areas of swamps and change the environment needed for fishing industries in these areas. These changes will reduce 26-42 per cent of caught fish worth about 500 million USD a year(9). Secondly, mainstream hydroelectric projects will increase inequality in the lower Mekong countries. While China and Laos will gain benefits in terms of energy, Vietnam and Cambodia will suffer hugely in terms of fishing and agriculture. In the short and medium run, poverty will be aggravated, especially among the poor in rural areas and municipalities on the river, because of any mainstream hydroelectric project. Fishermen who account for a large percentage of poor and vulnerable communities in downstream areas of the river will suffer seafood losses. Poor households will be negatively affected by hydroelectricity projects including displacement, land losses and the impact of the construction of these projects itself.

3. Effects on Vietnam

The Mekong River flows through Vietnamese Mekong River Delta before discharging into the East Sea. The Mekong River Delta has an area of more than 40,000 square kilometers and is home to nearly 20 million people. Every year it contributes up to 27 per cent of Vietnam’s GDP and exports 90 per cent of its rice and nearly 60 per cent of its seafood. However, the Delta has been influenced by the double impact of climate change and water insecurity in the Mekong River.

The depletion of wetland ecology and biodiversity in the Mekong River Delta is irrecoverable for good. At present, salt water is increasingly penetrating the river and prolonged water shortages in the dry season are becoming more serious. If the Mekong River Delta does not receive at least 2,000 cubic meters of water per second in the driest months, salt water from the sea will deeply penetrate the river. In addition, the dams will shorten the flood season in the Delta. When they stock up on water, the dams will slow down the flow of the river, affecting the treatment of acid, salt and alkaline in soil.

Rice paddies in the Mekong River Delta are currently under the strong impact of climate change and rapid increase in the number of hydroelectric facilities in the upstream areas of the river, having a major effect on food security. In the Mekong River Delta alone, the Mekong River supplies, on average, 100-200 tons of alluvium each year in the flood season. As upstream hydroelectric dams block most of the alluvium by keeping it in their reservoirs, Vietnam’s crops will suffer greatly. According to the Department of Crop Production of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, rice output in the Mekong River Delta reached 25.2 million tons in 2014, up from that in 2012 and 2013. However, if the exploitation and use of the Mekong River remains unchanged, this Delta is predicted to lose 7.6 million tons of rice a year(10) or around 30 per cent of its output. Obviously, water insecurity in the Mekong River has posed grave challenges to food security in Vietnam and the rest of the world.

Regarding aquaculture, the Mekong River Delta farms 70 per cent of the country’s seafood. However, according to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), this output may be endangered due to changes in the special flood and drought cycle of the Mekong River. When water level at the upstream section of the river is lower, there will be a shortage of fresh water for seafood farming, and species suitable for flooded conditions will no longer be appropriate. What is more, when sea water penetrates the river deeply, some freshwater seafood raising areas will no longer be able to survive. Apparently, a decline in seafood production in the Mekong River Delta will exert a major influence on Vietnam’s seafood industry in general.

Because of salt water penetration during the dry season due to smashed flows of the river, the quality of fresh water will deteriorate greatly. People’s lives will not be ensured because water from the river is the main source of water for their lives and production.

4. Some policy suggestions to ensure water security in the Mekong River for Vietnam

Firstly, regarding the international laws, Vietnam needs to promote the implementation of the 1997 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which the country joined in August 2014. This is the first global convention to regulate quite comprehensively the relations between countries when it comes to the use of international watercourses with a view to ensuring equitable and reasonable use of watercourses between upstream and downstream areas. Although no country in the Mekong subregion except Vietnam has joined the convention, Vietnam can still use it to negotiate issues emerging from the use of international watercourses. In addition, Vietnam needs to actively call on th other countries to join the convention so the principle of equitable and reasonable use of watercourses can be used as a common standard during the exploitation of the Mekong River.

Secondly, Vietnam needs to intensify its communication internationally to improve the awareness of people living on the river of the importance of water security; calls on developing countries to give higher priority to water security in their national plans and budgets; and engage countries in initiatives on food security, energy water security, health and climate change.

Thirdly, Vietnam needs to call on powers such as the United States, the European Union, Japan, etc, to provide assistance for increasing the capacity to cope with nontraditional security challenges and improving the lives of people who depend on the Mekong River.

Vietnam needs to intensify public diplomacy, increase contacts and exchanges of experience between the people of the countries along the river and create common voices and actions among them, which in turn will influence their governments’ policymaking process.

Vietnam also needs to organize more international conferences on water security to collect initiatives and recommendations from participating scholars for the protection of the interests of a downstream country.

Finally, Vietnam needs to increase bilateral diplomacy with regional countries and powers to maintain good relations with them and the stable, peaceful atmosphere and avoid turning Mekong into a major issue in these relations. Vietnam should take advantage of existing regional cooperative mechanisms, especially the ASEAN, and include the Mekong water security issue in the agendas of forums and conferences of this organization. Regarding the MRC - the most important intergovernmental organization in watercourse management, Vietnam needs to promote consultation and continue to campaign for a halt of hydroelectric dam projects in ten years so as to produce careful evaluation of their impact. It is absolutely essential to call for consensus among the four member countries for the common good of the river and its sustainable, equitable and reasonable use. In addition, Vietnam needs to work with other countries to call for more extensive cooperation of the two observers, China and Myanmar, especially China’s cooperation in sharing information.


 (1), (6) Mukand S.Babel, and Shahriar M.Wahid (2009): “Fresh water under threat South East Asia, vulnerrability assessment of freshwater resources to environmental change Mekong River Basin”, United Nations Environment Programme, Asian Institute of Technology.

(2) Evelyn Goh (2004): China in the Mekong River Basin: The regional security Implications of resource development on the Lancang Jiang, Paper submitted for the “Securitisation” book project.

(3) VietNamnetWeek(2009), “Chinese exploitation of the Mekong River and the danger of killing the Cuu Long River Delta”, http://tuanvietnamnet.vietnamnet.vn.

(5) Rechard Cronin (2010): “Mekong dams and the perils of peace”, Global Polictics and Strategy, vol. 51, No.6.

(7), (8) International Centre for Environmental Management (ICEM): “Strategic environmental assessment of hydropower on the Mekongmainstream” compiled for the International Mekong River Commission, October 2010.

(11) The World and Vietnamnewspaper (2014): “Let’s keep the world’s bowl”, http://www.tgvn.com.vn.

Dr. Le Duy Thang

Political University, Ministry of National Defence

MA. Tran Thi Kim Dung

Ho Chi Minh National Academy of Politics

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