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Opinion

Mekong nears tipping point as US-China rivalry grows

Difficult choices ahead as drought takes hold in downstream countries

The Mekong River, which originates on the Tibetan Plateau and flows nearly 5,000 km through China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to the South China Sea, is in danger of drying up. The five downstream countries must act now to defend their collective interests or risk ceding control of the river to China, which controls the headwaters.

The downstream countries are experiencing a major drought that threatens fisheries and agricultural production throughout the river basin. Over the past two months, most portions of the Mekong system have recorded historically low water levels.

In mid-July irrigation pumping stations in northeast Thailand lost access to the river, causing Thailand to mobilize its military. Photographs of trapped migratory fish in Thailand and Laos went viral on social media, triggering a round of finger-pointing about who was to blame.

On the margins of a high-level meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Bangkok in early August, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Mekong foreign ministers that the drought was "linked to China's decision to shut water off upstream."

In a rare direct response, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi angrily rejected Pompeo's claim, stating that China had "actively released a greater amount of water to the downstream," according to Chinese media.

Neither statement reflects the complex challenges facing the region, but both point to the willingness of major powers to use water as a political tool to advance their broader interests.

China did not cause the drought, although outflows from its Jinghong dam were reduced in June and July for "grid maintenance." This seems to have been thoughtless, rather than malicious.

China has the capacity to relieve pressure downstream through planned and well-coordinated water releases. However, ad-hoc, short-term releases rarely provide downstream countries with the sustained relief required during a long-standing drought.

But this is not just a China problem: it is a reflection of the broader inability of the Mekong countries to agree on a regional plan for managing their water resources. Over the last three decades Laos has completed 64 hydropower dams within its portion of the Mekong Basin, Vietnam 15, Thailand nine and Cambodia three.

Most were finished in the last five years. The cumulative effects exacerbate the drought because dams reduce water flows and prevent migratory fish from finding traditional upstream habitats, depriving local communities of fish and damaging agricultural yields.

If existing plans are implemented, another 438 dams (364 in Laos, 66 in Cambodia and eight in China) will further fragment the basin. While extra releases of water from China could mitigate the impact of drought downstream, they could never fully compensate for the lack of monsoonal rains and the impact of additional infrastructure. It is these combined pressures that are strangling the Mekong.

There is no shortage of proposals for outside intervention. China's Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism -- a funding framework to channel assistance to the five lower Mekong countries -- is proposing a slew of infrastructure projects and a vision for the Mekong that promotes flood reduction and drought relief.

But while drought relief is always welcome, an ambitious China-led plan to reduce Mekong floods could also drive the region to economic ruin.

A 2017 study by the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission estimated that monsoon flooding provides $8 billion-$10 billion in annual economic benefits while costing less than $70 million in damages. In other words, the seasonal flows of the Mekong are critical to ensuring the river's survival in its current form.

Putting China in charge of the Mekong would also marginalize the MRC -- a mechanism that Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam have been working through for more than 20 years to support regional development.

Signaling a new determination to act, major donors including the U.S., Japan, Australia, and the E.U. are increasing their support to the region with hundreds of millions of dollars in technical assistance that is poised to unlock billions in private investment.

The recently launched Mekong Water Data Initiative, part of the U.S.-led Lower Mekong Initiative, a framework for development and technical assistance, is an important step toward ensuring that all the countries of the Mekong have access to real time hydrometeorological data to improve drought and flood forecasting and regional planning and responses -- if it realizes its promise.

At the ASEAN meeting, the U.S. also announced $29.5 million in funding to launch the new Japan-United States Mekong Power Partnership, one of several emerging Mekong partnerships between the U.S., Japan and Australia that envision a more diversified and climate-friendly regional power sector. Japan is expected to at least match the U.S. contribution.

The downstream Mekong countries should engage with all these proposals, while ensuring that control of the river's future is not ceded to China.

More immediately, Beijing should be pressed to provide data on water flows and dam operations that would help downstream countries to plan and respond to changing hydrological conditions. Providing such data would be a way for China to demonstrate the sincerity of its approach.

Downstream countries must push back against those who seek to utilize the Mekong for broader political gains and put control of the river back into their own hands. By working together they can ensure a water-secure future for the entire region.

Brian Eyler is author of "Last Days of the Mighty Mekong" and director of the Stimson Center's Southeast Asia Program in Washington D.C. Aaron Salzberg is director of The Water Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was formerly the Special Coordinator for Water at the U.S. Department of State.

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