The mighty Mekong River & “non-traditional security operations”
For two reasons, the meeting organized on the sidelines of the ASEAN Foreign Ministerial Meeting in late July was special.
One, it was the first dialogue between the ‘downstream countries’ and the US, reportedly at the initiative of the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The five countries met to discuss cooperation on common concerns, including environment, climate change, healthcare, education and infrastructure development.
Two, the meeting was connected to recent events: China is building many dams in the upper Mekong River basin, including the 292m Xiaowan Dam. The Chinese construction program has caused scientists to worry about harmful impacts on the lower reaches of the Mekong River.
According to Yale Global online magazine (US), 18 dams have been built, are being built or are planned along the river’s 4350 kilometer length.
Professor Pham Hong Giang, Chairman of the Vietnam Great Dams and Water Resources Development Association, said that the big hydro-power works on the major stream are being implemented at different phases. The construction of big dams has finished. The remaining projects have their designs completed. The water volume impounded by these hydro-power reservoirs will total around 55 billion cubic meters. The total power-generating capacity of the plants will reach 24 GW.
Throughout history, the world has witnessed many conflicts over water resources, especially in the regions where many countries share the same source of water. The conflicts resulted from the clash of the interests and the way of exploitation of water resources between upstream and downstream countries.
Upstream countries always have an advantage in using shared rivers: they don’t suffer from the impacts of their activities like those downstream. For example, when hydro-power dams and irrigation systems are used, the flows in the lower river can be changed, leading to environmental impacts of various intensity to the downstream area. Moreover, industrial activities in the upstream can pollute the downstream.
Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, Prof. Giang said, faces the twin threats of climate change and reduced flow on the Mekong; these could combine to devastate ‘Vietnam’s rice basket.’ Giang explained that because of climate change, the sea level will rise and salt water witll infiltrate the Mekong Delta. Meanwhile, the changes in the river’s flow caused by hydro-power works can enhance floods and droughts in the downstream.
“If upstream dams discharge water in the flood season, it will make floods more dangerous,” Giang analyzed. “If in the dry season, water is held in upstream reservoirs, the downstream region will face drought. More dangerously, if water from the upstream contains wastewater, the losses downstream are incalculable.”
Dr. To Van Truong, director of the Southern Region Irrigation Planning Institute, emphasized that the operation of hydro-power plants in the upstream area will surely impact the water level, power capacity, agriculture, aquaculture, water transportation and environment of all the Mekong River downstream countries.
“Hydro-power dams in China and reservoirs in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia will slow down the the natural flow of the Mekong River, change its course and sources of nutrition, which in turn will affect the growth of fish and the livelihood of the people along the river,” Truong said.
Alluvial soil from the upstream (China) accounts for around 40 percent of the total alluvial volume of the Mekong River. The people in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta welcome annual floods because floods deposit silt on their fields, creates good conditions for aquaculture, and flush salt from the soil. Provinces in the border of Vietnam and Cambodia earn around 4.5 trillion dong (US$250 million) from the annual flooding of the Mekong River.
Multinational management mechanism for Mekong River
To protect the interests of all sides, a multilateral management mechanism for the Mekong River is an urgent need. However, it won’t be easy to build such a mechanism. History shows that the countries with respect to river system management because of their different viewpoints about sovereignty and responsibility for common assets.
Upstream countries can assert the principle of “absolutely respecting national sovereignty” to support their right to use water resources without interference. Meanwhile, downstream countries can question how each nation can cut up the river into pieces as their own asset while the river is a common asset? Based on the latter argument, joint responsibility among related countries must become the principle of behavior.
In international law, the “Helsinki Rules,” which specify equality among countries in having access to water resources and require information exchange among countries about their projects on rivers, are highly appreciated but only hortatory, not compulsory.
In our region, the influence of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is limited because its members are only the downstream countries. The two upstream nations, Myanmar and China, have only agreed to be ‘observers’ at MRC meetings.
In this context, a mechanism for cooperation between the US and downstream countries is important. Such cooperation benefits all sides.
For the US, it expresses the new diplomatic policy of the Obama administration, in which three priorities have significantly changed. Geographically, the US has shifted its priority from Europe to Asia, with the return of the US in the Asia-Pacific region. Second, there is a change of leadership style from unilateralism to multilateralism, from de-emphasizing ‘hard power’ and strengthening ‘soft power.’ Third, the substance of policy has evolved – from emphasis on traditional security areas like military threats and anti-terrorism to non-traditional security areas like economic development, social issues, healthcare and climate change.
For the four Mekong River countries, the participation of the US will be very helpful because Mekong River cooperation will not be restricted to water resource management or seeking solutions for climate change impacts, but also focus on economic growth and the improvement of education and healthcare for over 65 million people along the Mekong River.
This multilateral forum is also an opportunity to attract world attention to the Mekong River, especially when the topics like sustainable development, environmental protection and climate change have become world-class issues.
However, for the downstream countries as they seek to merge principal and practice, the engagement of the US or any other country can only play a supporting role. It cannot be not a decisive factor. The key is the internal strength of Mekong River downstream countries themselves.
It requires skillful deplomacy and a resolute attitude. It must be clear that the Mekong River is a common asset that must protected according to the win-win principle. All matters related to the river ought to be solved through multilateral cooperation, with respect for general rules and the support of the international community. These are the pillars for building peace and mutual development for the Mekong River Delta community in the future.