Damming the Mekong: Environmental Degradation and the “Build First, Talk Later” Approach

By: Trisha Ray, Columnist

Photo Credit: Mongabay

The Mekong River, in particular the proliferation of Chinese dams along it, has become a source of conflict between the upstream countries of China and Laos and downstream countries of Cambodia and Vietnam. The basis of this conflict is the environmental impact of hydropower projects on the river’s ecosystem, and by extension the wellbeing of the tens of thousands of people downstream who depend on the river for their livelihood. China’s unwillingness to engage meaningfully with the concerns raised by Cambodia and Vietnam through transnational bodies like the Mekong River Commission demonstrates how it seeks to ‘resolve’ disputes on solely its own terms.

The Mekong River Projects

The Lower Mekong has a total power potential of 30,000 MW, of which only a fraction has been harnessed.[i] To put this number in perspective, Cambodia currently has a total installed electricity capacity of 1,657 MW.[ii] Hydropower is, therefore, an attractive and abundant source of clean energy for the Mekong countries. [iii]

Photo Credit: Mongabay

China is the primary source of investment in the Mekong hydropower projects. China has already built seven dams in its Yunnan province, with nine additional dams planned or under construction.[iv] Of the eleven dams planned for construction in Laos and Cambodia along the Lower Mekong, five involve Chinese investment.[v] For the foreseeable future, Chinese-funded dams along the Mekong’s distributaries offer the most abundant source of hydropower for these countries.

Environmental Concerns

However, the negative environmental impact of these eleven projects has made this potential source of energy less appealing to Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong Delta is home to 20 percent of Vietnam’s population, 40 percent of its fisheries and 48 percent of its cereal production.[vi] For Cambodia, the ‘pulse’ or seasonal flooding of the Mekong River into the Tonle Sap lake and the resulting high productivity is crucial to its fishing sector which accounts for 12 percent of its GDP.[vii]

A 2012 report by Ziv, Baram, Levin, et al. on the trade-off between fish biodiversity and hydropower estimates that the construction of all the proposed dams will bring many migratory fish species to extinction.[viii] Damming the Mekong will have adverse effects on the millions of people who rely on the river for their livelihood as well as food supply to the rest of the world. The planned dams would prevent the migration of 70 percent of the Mekong’s commercial fish catch and negatively impact the river’s biodiversity.[ix] The Mekong yields 2.6 million tons of wild fish annually (with the fisheries valued at up to $9.4 billion), as well as 15 percent of the world’s rice.[x] The effects of continued construction of dams along the Mekong will therefore have an adverse impact on important industries based around the river.

Dispute Resolution

Currently, there are two main transnational bodies involved in mediating disputes between the Mekong-Lancang countries: The Mekong River Commission and the newer Lancang-Mekong Cooperation.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was formed in 1995 with the aim of mediating disputes amongst the Mekong countries. It was formed by Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and two dialogue partners, China and Myanmar. Dialogue partners, unlike members, do not need to participate in MRC’s information-sharing mechanisms. The MRC has opposed the construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams and recently addressed the construction of a third dam on February 22, 2017 at the Regional Stakeholder Forum in Luang Prabang. Laos and China have continued to dismiss complaints of potential environmental damage as groundless.[xi] Any potential MRC decision is further undermined by China’s refusal to become a full member on the grounds that it prefers to resolve disputes on a bilateral basis.[xii]

Despite this stated preference, China led the creation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) in 2015, which it says will be an effective mechanism for cooperation.[xiii] Why would China be so willing to create a multilateral organization given its earlier-stated preference for bilateral solutions? Simply put, if China must eventually participate in any dispute-resolution process, they prefer it be one governed by rules they set themselves. Thitnan Pongsudhirak, a Thai political scientist, calls this the “build-first, talk later” approach.[xiv] Beijing, it seems, aims to block any resistance to its projects and control the official channels by which such resistance would arise.

As a consequence, Vietnam and Cambodia face an uphill battle in getting their environmental concerns heeded by Laos and China. The MRC is not an effective mechanism to resolve disputes with China due to the latter’s unwillingness to engage with it, and the LMC may become an institution that primarily serves Chinese interests.

[i] Pichamon Yeophantong, “China’s Lancang Dam Cascade and Transnational Activism in the Mekong Region: Who’s Got the Power?”, Asian Survey, Vol. 54, No. 4, July/August 2014, 708

[ii] Report on Power Sector of the Kingdom of Cambodia (Electricity Authority of Cambodia, 2016), 83. http://eac.gov.kh/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Annual-Report-2015-English.pdf

[iii] “The Mekong”, The Economist, accessed February 20, 2017. http://www.economist.com/news/essays/21689225-can-one-world-s-great-waterways-survive-its-development

[iv] Thitinan Pongsudhirak, “China’s alarming ‘water diplomacy’ on the Mekong”, Nikkei Asian Review, March 21, 2016.


[v] Liyuan Li, “Mekong Dam Project Generates Growing Controversy”, Voice of America, February 26, 2014. http://www.voanews.com/a/china-mekong-dam-project-generates-growing-controversy/1859964.html

[vi] “Vietnam Baseline Perspective”, Mekong River Commission, 2011. http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/Consultations/SEA-Hydropower/13.Vietnam-Baseline-Assessment-Perspective28Jan.pdf

[vii] Elina Heikinheimo, “Four scenarios for Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake in 2030 – Testing the use of scenarios in water resources management”, Aalto University, August 2011, 18


[viii] Guy Ziv, Eric Baran, So Nam et al, “Trading-off fish biodiversity, food security, and hydropower in the Mekong River Basin”, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States f America (PNAS), Vol. 109 No. 15, January 28, 2012. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3326487/

[ix] “The Mekong”, The Economist

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Sun Narin, “Laos Dismissed Concerns Over Hydropower Projects”, Voice of America- Cambodia, February 23, 2017. http://www.voacambodia.com/a/laos-dismisses-concerns-over-hydropower-project/3735377.html

[xii] Joshua Lipes, “China Should Join Mekong Commission: US Official”, Radio Free Asia, January 9, 2014. http://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/commission-01092014174430.html

[xiii] The document includes a delightful comparison between the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation and blueberries, or Lanmei (蓝莓)

“Five Features of Lancang-Mekong River Cooperation”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, March 17, 2016. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1349239.shtml

[xiv] Ibid.

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