Cracked riverbeds, empty fishing nets and, snaking its way through the parched landscape, a beautifully clear, blue-tinted river.
This was the view of the mighty Mekong River earlier this year, when record-low water levels revealed a striking vulnerability to the main artery of Southeast Asia, a 4,350km feature that plays a role in everything from food security to national defence and energy production.
Nobody who knew the river and saw it sitting low in its banks, turned Caribbean blue in places due to a lack of life-giving muddy sediment, disputed that something was amiss.
The real question was who could do anything about it.
Development of the Mekong River basin is ostensibly guided by a web of 13 cooperation bodies struck between various combinations of the six countries – China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam – through which the river runs.
But despite the importance of the water to the roughly 60 million people living along its banks, the lack of a firm transnational governance of the Mekong may now threaten the long-term survival of the river ecosystem as it faces threats from both climate change and upstream damming, much of the latter financed by Chinese state interests.
“It’s the challenge of the commons,” said Benjamin Zawacki, the Bangkok-based author of Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the US and a Rising China. “National interests win out in the short term and political reasons come into play, paired with the economic, and the collective effect is that the Mekong River is now walkable in the way that the earth is now warming palpably.”
Transnational rivers can pose an open challenge in the realm of international relations, and the Mekong is no exception. China is not the only country to drive Mekong damming projects, but its placement at the river’s start gives its projects an added heft. Chinese firms have so far completed 11 dams on the river in the country’s southern reaches and have financed several more on Mekong tributaries in neighboring Laos.
While all other countries in the lower basin have, for now, moved away from plans to dam the river’s mainstream, Laos has continued to welcome such developments. In late 2019, the Thai-financed Xayaburi Dam in the small, land-locked country became the first mainstream installation on the lower Mekong, a move environmentalists say has contributed to clear, blue and sometimes lifeless waters of the river below the steep concrete wall.
In a widely viewed report published this month, researchers from Eyes on Earth, an American environmental research group, looked at the role of Chinese dams in the harsh 2019 drought conditions that roiled Southeast Asia.
They used satellite imagery, river gauge readings and microwave technology to add the latest piece of evidence against damming the river’s mainstream, an increasingly controversial practice that advocates argue help develop the region through hydroelectric power and better control of water supply. The study sparked widespread public interest, launching resistance hashtags on social media and localised reporting from Southeast Asian publications.
“We were working hard to monitor water levels in the basins so countries can have honest discussion,” said Alan Basist, an author of the study. “The goal is better community resolution on how to distribute water, to try to get data so people can work together from the same vantage point.”
The Eyes on Earth study generated plenty of attention, but its findings were immediately questioned by hydrologists from the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a multi-state member organisation founded in 1957 with the task of promoting cooperative development of the waterway.
Anoulak Kittikhoun is the chief strategy and partnership officer for the MRC. While he thought the recent damming study was “creative” in its approach, he pushed back on the extent of its conclusions.
“I think the findings are aligned so far as the Chinese dams can influence the flows up to the northern part of the lower Mekong,” Kittikhoun said, “But to make the claim the Chinese can stop the water and the lower Mekong will be dry, I think that’s a bit much.”
As the oldest of the organisations that monitor the Mekong, the Vientiane-based MRC has built its own capacity to measure the health of the river and create a space for dialogue between its member states of Laos, Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia. According to the analyst Zawacki, it’s also one of just two existing bodies to truly deal with the Mekong itself as a body of water rather than an economic resource.
The other is the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC), a Chinese-led development framework initiated in 2016 as a river-focused outlet of China’s globe-trotting Belt and Road Initiative. Lancang is the traditional Chinese name for that country’s stretch of the Mekong River, which begins in the Tibetan Plateau and runs through the border province of Yunnan.
While Zawacki identified these two as the dominant players right now in the Mekong water discourse, he also pointed to the US-led Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI) as another actor in the region with a potentially rising significance. Yet another of the 13 Mekong cooperation bodies, the LMI funded the recent Eyes on Earth study and is part of a group that includes outside partners with economic and geopolitical, but not geographic, ties to the river.
That American framework, founded in 2009 under the administration of former president Barack Obama as part of its so-called pivot to Asia, was perceived to have fallen to the back burner his second term, and was diminished further by current president Donald Trump.
Now, Zawacki said the project is undergoing a “rebranding” that leaves observers unsure of what its future will hold.
“It could be Trump’s effort at placing LMI under broader, more specific strategy rhetoric the same way LMC, on China’s part, is under the Belt and Road Initiative,” Zawacki said, suggesting such a move would “give it more geopolitical heft”.
Though he said diplomats he’s spoken with aren’t entirely clear what exactly that will entail, he believes there may be a common interest among Mekong state politicians for a stronger American-led system to balance the growing power of China’s LMC.
“No one wants to be exposed as working exclusively with the US as a counter to Chinese expansion, but if it’s multilateral, it’s a matter of cooperation and so can provide political interference for these sorts of things,” Zawacki said.
Though China has invested in hydroelectric projects downstream, it was the dams and reservoirs in its own territory that attracted the interest of Basist and the team from Eyes on Earth in making their report. They examined the effect of these developments by using microwaves to detect and map “surface wetness” levels in Yunnan and down along the Mekong basin.
The researchers then compared that level of wetness, a variable used to estimate water volume in the river, to create a model of seasonal flow from China that could be held up against actual recorded volumes measured by MRC gauges on its uppermost river station in Laos.
After observing the level of wetness in Yunnan province and checking it against the flow of the river out of China, the team concluded that the damming upstream had contributed to severe drought conditions during last year’s rainy season in the lower basin countries.
“The Chinese now have the capacity to completely disrupt the flow of the river,” Basist said, whilst emphasising that damming was not the ultimate cause of the drought, but had exacerbated its conditions.
The Chinese government has disputed that claim and pointed to wider drought conditions across Yunnan during the measured period. At the same time, a Chinese representative in the US on April 21 rejected the Eyes on Earth study as a “groundless report [that] runs counter to facts.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said his country “has been doing its best to guarantee reasonable discharge volumes downstream”, adding that LMC leaders decided earlier this year to “positively consider sharing year-round hydrological data with Mekong countries and enhance cooperation under the LMC framework”.
What [the Eyes on Earth study] clearly says is the level of the river in Chiang Saen, Thailand, right in the middle of the river basin, would have been running at normal or above normal levels if China’s dams weren’t thereBrian Eyler a Mekong expert and Southeast Asia programme director at the Stimson Center
“The Lancang-Mekong region is home to the six riparian countries, thus cooperation in water resources should naturally be led by these regional countries,” Geng said. “China will step up information-sharing and cooperation in water resources with Mekong countries and work with them to address challenges brought by climate change, floods and other natural disasters.”
Speaking from Vientiane, the MRC’s Kittikhoun said Chinese representatives had shared similar overtures with the Mekong River Commission. China has long been an observer to the commission, but has never formally joined as a member. The MRC and the Chinese have also signed a memorandum of understanding at the end of last year to undergo a joint study on drought, Kittikhoun said.
Such a study would come after a massive dry period that dropped Mekong water levels to their lowest in more than a century. The failure of summer rains to flood the normally fertile river banks led to crop failures and worries of food insecurity, all while dead fish crowded sluggish pools of river water. In Cambodia, the great Tonle Sap lake formed as the “beating heart” extension of the river’s mainstream, experienced such low water levels that some of its floating villages were driven ashore.
Brian Eyler is a Mekong specialist and Southeast Asia programme director at the Stimson Center, a think tank based in Washington DC that examines transnational peace and security issues. Like Basist, Eyler doesn’t argue China caused the drought as a whole in 2019, especially not in regions outside the river basin.
By and large, he says, drought conditions across Southeast Asia – felt especially hard in regions like northwest Thailand – were ushered in by a lack of rainfall caused by the global El Nino weather pattern that settled over the region in the spring of 2019 and lasted until just a few months ago.
Hydrologists at the MRC point to this climatic dryness as the main cause of plunging Mekong water levels, especially in areas further downstream, and though they said Basist’s method could explain low water levels as far as Chiang Saen, Thailand, on the border of Laos, they don’t believe the effects of Chinese damming could impact the entirety of the basin. In a note contesting the Eyes on Earth study, representatives of the commission wrote that rain-swelled tributaries in Laos add almost 60% of flood season discharge in the mainstream at the Lao-Cambodian border compared to about a 15% contribution from China.
“The approach does not provide robust scientific evidence that the storing of water in Chinese reservoirs caused the exceptionally low flows in the (Lower Mekong basin) at Vientiane in 2019 and 2020,” they wrote.
Still, Eyler argues the implications of those findings at Chiang Saen cannot be quickly discounted.
“But what [the Eyes on Earth study] clearly says is the level of the river in Chiang Saen, right in the middle of the river basin, would have been running at normal or above normal levels if China’s dams weren’t there, even while this record-low level of precipitation was playing out in the region,” he said.
“Therefore, the photos we saw of the dry riverbed, dead fish, the dryness of the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, wouldn’t have been that way. There would have been enough water coming down from China to put that underwater in the mainstream.”
The Mekong River Commission has no designs to be the ultimate authority on the river and, while its member states are required by agreement to consult with their peers before using mainstream river water, the group can’t veto a member’s sovereign decision to do so. Rather, members are expected to submit to a process of prior notification in which they provide all available data and information about a proposed river project and accept recommendations from the other states and the MRC itself.
Looking to that at-times messy, consensus-seeking model, Zawacki saw an advantage favouring the vision of China’s Lancang cooperation in that its “single architect” structure allows for quicker decision-making and active follow-up. In the long term, he fears the LMC could be on track to eventually displace Southeast Asia’s “indigenous” Mekong River Commission in its function as the central organisation on the river, suggesting China has already found success promoting its interests in Southeast Asia by circumventing the region’s multilateral bodies, like ASEAN, and making deals directly with individual countries.
“At the end of the day, the kind of aid and assistance the LMC offers is simply very difficult for any single lower Mekong country to refuse,” he said. “Usually, for both economic and political reasons, saying no to a powerful and persistent China is hard to do.”
Kittikhoun has a different view, at least in terms of the relationship between his organisation and that of China. At least so far, he’s not gotten the impression the Chinese aim to cut out the MRC or its role in the region.
“In terms of what China does with political stuff, you can always say stuff like that, but there’s no substantial evidence,” he said of the MRC’s dealings with China, which he acknowledged as a “big player [that] sends maybe not totally uniform messages about its engagement on different fronts.”
“With a joint study, maybe it won’t be perfect, but as long as we can get one foot in the door and keep cooperating, maybe we can reach our goal for a future of a more transparent data-sharing regime,” Kittikhoun said.