At nearly 5,000 kilometers long, the Mekong River is one of Asia’s most strategically important transboundary waterways. In addition to providing water for populations in the highlands of southern China, the Mekong helps support some 60 million people
downstream in Southeast Asia, where the river is a key component of agricultural production and economic development.
In recent years, however, the Mekong has emerged as a flashpoint for controversy, pitting China against a coalition of downstream nations that includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The countries of the Lower Mekong argue that Beijing’s construction of multiple dams on the Upper Mekong is robbing them of critical water resources, by decreasing both the quality and quantity of water that makes it through Chinese floodgates and spillways. China, however, mindful of soaring energy demand at home, has continued its campaign to harness the hydroelectric potential of the Upper Mekong and its tributaries – but at what cost to the environment and Beijing’s relationships with Southeast Asia?
China’s Hand on the Faucet
China’s total energy demand just recently passed the United States and is expected to continue to increase in the near-term – by 75 percent over the next 25 years, according to the International Energy Agency.
As a result, Beijing has been looking to bolster its energy security by reaching out to develop energy resources in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East, as well as along the Mekong and in the East and South China Seas.
In that context, China’s aggressive hydroelectric development of the Upper Mekong — known in China as the Láncang Jiang (shown in the boxed area of the map at right) — makes perfect sense. The river’s sizeable elevation drops make it a rich source of energy; already, 15 large-scale dams have either been completed or are under construction on the Upper Mekong in Tibet and Yunnan.
Those dams also provide China with enormous geopolitical leverage over downstream nations. With little more than the flick of a switch, the Chinese government could substantially curtail the volume of flow entering the Lower Mekong basin. Doing so would of course be tantamount to an act of war, since depleted flow volumes in the Lower Mekong would hinder crop irrigation, jeopardize food security, and endanger the health of the region’s economically critical freshwater fisheries, which are among the world’s most productive. Chinese floodgates and spillways essentially give Beijing de facto control over Southeast Asia’s water security.
The View Downstream
To date, China has never threatened to deliberately reduce the flow of the Mekong to its downstream neighbors. Nevertheless, the perception of threat in Southeast Asian capitals remains high.
Already, a number of the region’s governments — represented formally through the Mekong River Commission, a 15-year-old organization that China still has not joined as a full-fledged member — have complained that completed or in-progress Chinese dams are resulting in less water entering their countries, a phenomenon that becomes particularly pronounced during periods of drought, as observed this summer. Further, there is also the issue of water quality. Since Chinese dams trap silt being flushed out of the Himalayas, that nutrient-rich material cannot be carried downstream, where it historically has helped create fertile soils in the floodplains of the Lower Mekong basin.
Quality and quantity concerns aside, there are also structural issues concerning how Beijing goes about its business on the Upper Mekong. Since it is only a “Dialogue Partner” to members of the Mekong River Commission, China is not required to seek approval from downstream nations on hydroelectric development of the river’s Chinese stretch, even though that development has both direct and indirect implications for water security in the Lower Mekong basin. China has even shown a penchant for deliberate secrecy as it develops its stretch of the river, choosing to share a minimal amount of hydrological data with downstream neighbors and typically refraining from even announcing new dam projects.
“The Security Implications Could Hardly Be Greater”
Given its geographic position, Cambodia is particularly vulnerable to China’s stewardship decisions. With one of the poorest populations in Southeast Asia and also one of the highest fertility rates, at 3.3 births per woman, the potential for water scarcity issues is real. By mid-century, its population is projected to jump from its current 15 million to nearly 24 million.
“The government of Cambodia will be entirely at the mercy of Beijing,” said Wilson Center Scholar and Southeast Asian security expert Marvin Ott. “For Cambodia, the question becomes how they can curry China’s favor so as to avoid coercive use of the Mekong — or find some way of exerting counter-pressure on Beijing.”
Overall, population for mainland Southeast Asia is projected to rise from its current 232 million to 292 million by 2050. This growth will require increased agricultural output across the region and thus increased reliance on the waters of the Lower Mekong. The Lower Mekong nations’ shared dependency on the river and China’s continued unilateralism in the Upper Mekong could have serious repercussions for the region, said Ott:
The security implications could hardly be greater for the downstream states. With the dams, China will have literal control over the river system that is the lifeblood of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The power this gives China is equivalent to an invasion and occupation of a country by the Chinese army.For its part, the PRC maintains that water woes in the Lower Mekong are not its doing. In response to the chorus of Southeast Asian claims that China diverts or stores more than its fair share of water, Beijing’s typical refrain has been that blame for low water levels downstream lies not with Chinese water resource management but with heightened precipitation variability associated with climate change. Chinese water officials also contend that the Lower Mekong countries’ complaints are misdirected because water from the Chinese-controlled sections of the Upper Mekong basin accounts for less than 20 percent of the Mekong’s total flow volume by the time the river reaches its natural outlet in the South China Sea.
There are some indications, however, that China may be experimenting with a more open approach to engaging downstream nations. Earlier this year, China overturned precedent by offering top Southeast Asian government officials a tour of what had once been a top-secret hydro project, the mammoth Xiaowan dam. Some critics insisted Beijing’s fear of growing U.S. influence in the Lower Mekong helped motivate the rare show of transparency, while others said it was a means to curry favor with Southeast Asian nations so that they would support China’s controversial resource-development strategies in the South China Sea. Yet regardless of motive, Beijing’s move away from secrecy – if sustained – could do a great deal to smooth over regional tensions.
Dammed If You Do, Damned If You Don’t
Beyond some limited transparency, Beijing also hopes to mitigate concerns about development of the Upper Mekong by offering funding or logistical support for similar large-scale hydroelectric facilities on the Lower Mekong. The move has been largely welcomed by the Mekong River Commission countries, which envision dams of their own generating much-needed energy input for national grids, accelerating continued economic modernization, and enhancing flood control. As of 2009, there were 12 dam projects for stretches of the Mekong south of the Chinese border and many more planned for key tributaries.
The danger in such deal-making is that the environmental costs will be lost in the shuffle. A series of major dams would fundamentally alter the Mekong’s hydrology, which could lead to the degradation of sensitive riverine ecosystems, the disruption of upstream migratory routes for fish that serve as local dietary staples, and the decline of fresh water fisheries that form the backbone of many local economies.
Given the long-term effects on the food, environmental, and economic security of the Lower Mekong heartland, Beijing’s attempt to ease water tensions with a new round of dam construction may end up doing far more harm than good. Unfortunately, with both China and the Mekong River Commission countries currently viewing the dam proposals as something of a win-win, planning and construction are likely to move forward over the coming years.
Sources: Financial Times, Foreign Policy, International Institute for Strategic Studies, Los Angeles Times, Mekong River Commission, National Geographic, New Asia Republic, Phnom Penh Post, Population Reference Bureau, Stimson Center.
Photo Credits: “Xiaowan Dam Site (Yunnan Province, China, 2005),” (Top) courtesy of flickr user International Rivers; Map (Middle) courtesy of International Rivers; “Thailand – Isaan, Mekong River,” (Bottom) courtesy of flickr user vtveen.