Since the Khmer Empire ruled the Mekong River in the 9th century, it has held historical significance to Southeast Asia. The river boosted many communities on its shores to rely on its diverse biological resources for farming, fishing, and transporting goods and people. It sources its initial streams from the ice and snow of the Tibetan plateau during a strong monsoon season in the region. The river runs down through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Viet Nam, where it flows out into the South China Sea, on the shores of Ho Chi Minh City. These countries are experiencing industrialization and require sustainable and reliable electrical supplies. Despite the river having numerous dams of different sizes and environmental effects, many livelihoods depend on the river as a source of economic growth. Together, there is a rise in demand for hydropower from dams, increasing pressure on the Mekong River. 

Hydroelectric Dilemma

While hydroelectric power is a much more carbon-neutral form of energy compared to fossil fuels, it comes at a cost. While it means fewer damaging floods and much more control of agricultural production along the river, it affects the natural growth of the surrounding environment. Dams can decrease important chemical elements, such as oxygen, in the river downstream and hurt animals depending on stable oxygen levels to survive. For example, the Mekong River is second only to the Amazon River in fish biodiversity among all rivers globally. By changing the rapidly moving water to stagnant waters, the dams affect the ability of fish to navigate the river and delay their offshoots going upstream for reproduction. Therefore, fewer fish will get caught without threatening their survival, which hurts the diets of local fishers dependent on a daily catch.

Additionally, river floods are necessary for the long-term sustainability of agriculture and wildlife. Without cooperative management between countries to let through the required amount of water, there will be unequal amounts of flooding to different countries for agriculture needs. With agriculture being a fundamental food source for the nearby countries, forests near the river are being cleared by those involved in agricultural and mining industries to make space for new agricultural projects. The Mekong River made Southeast Asian countries some of the largest rice exporters in the world, with Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia all in the top ten. Since these countries have some of the largest populations in the world, preserving agriculture through a mix of storing water and flowing water is very important to spread natural fertilizers throughout the basin.

Mekong River Convention

The river is essential to millions of lives and much of the natural wildlife that calls the river home. It requires an intense amount of collaboration at multiple levels to manage the river’s resources responsibly. Despite this necessity, the last major convention between the basin countries happened in 1995. This specific convention for the river, known as the Mekong River Convention (MRC), stemmed from the need to collectively manage what was considered one of the most untainted rivers left in the world.

The organization became an independent institution aiming to consider “ the needs of all people in the basin, particularly the poor and those who relied on water resources for food and income.” Yet, only four out of six basin nations of the Mekong River are members of this convention, with Myanmar and China abstaining from joining. Those two countries are dialogue partners with the institution so that they can share monitored river statistics, like rainfall and water quality.

However, with the common away carbon-emitting energy sources, the member countries have been building many more dams than would have been considered in 1995 or previous to that. Given this dramatic increase in construction, the MRC has laid out multi-year plans for managing the river. Still, their 2020 to 2030 plan is the first to expand to 10 years of scope. The MRC’s plan followed a growing interest from Southeast Asian countries in building river dams and what that will do to the surrounding environment and the people living along the river, especially lower-income communities living in rural areas. This plan has highlighted progressive awareness of what is necessary to stabilize the river amongst the increased growth planned at a national level. 

Leading the Pack Without the Costs

Out of all the current nations operating dams on the Mekong River, China has led the way by building its dams for hydroelectric use, with 11 in operation. Their dams further the development of the river by providing investment for other countries’ dams currently in construction, which has been a big soft power investment in Southeast Asia. By following the lead of China, the lower countries on the river can match industrial ambition to harness the river’s current.

However, it comes with the environmental cost and new discourses between members of the MRC. China escapes these higher environmental costs due to its geographical location on the Mekong River. If too much water diverts for reservoirs or agriculture upstream, little to no water will go to China’s downstream neighbors. Compared to the number of dams built in the upper basin, the lower basin has minimal hydroelectric creation stations of the same scale so far. The lower countries have collectively reached that number of 11 but have planned to build more. As a result, there is a more negative discourse on how it will affect the overall health of the river. 

For example, Laos has been the target of Thailand’s criticism concerning how future dams will affect downstream flows. Thai representatives expressed that future dam plan reports were insufficient and are concerned about its environmental impact, going as far as publicly denouncing this planned dam. Yet, both countries have a complicated conflict over how they use the river. Laos wishes to build the dam to sell the energy generated to Thailand as a way to achieve an economic boost for both countries.

The river conflict between Laos and Thailand shows that several countries are codependent in harnessing the river’s resources at a national level to continue economic growth and protect natural resources. Thailand and Laos seek to emulate the positives China has gained from generating abundant energy with the river’s hydropower, revealing different relationships between MRC members. What makes each relationship different is the inclusion of environmental costs in dialogues, compared with their relations with the dialogue partners who feel less responsible for downstream effects. 

The Significance of the MRC in A Time of Ecological Disaster

In short, this river is an influential economic and renewable energy investment in the basin countries with some of the most rapidly developing hydroelectric power. The investment comes with a high environmental cost of building dams on the river. This cost is comparable to the number of resources a tree, or a watering hole can mean for an ecosystem on a much larger scale. With the MRC in place, there is at least a formal long-standing conversation between countries neighboring the Mekong River. The MRC is unique from other environmental organizations in the international community due to its strong historical commitment to sharing data and concerns over global resources. Copying the practice of sharing knowledge of collective resources is an important task in preserving natural environments.

Edited by Bethlehem Samson

Solomon Johnson

Solomon is a resident of Albuquerque and a recent graduate of the University of New Mexico, where he studied Political Science and International Studies. His research mainly focuses on the European Union...