The Greater Mekong Sub region leaders gathered in Hanoi yesterday at the 6th GMS Summit. The third Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit, which focuses on the theme “Enhancing Joint Efforts and Partnerships towards Achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals in the Mekong River Basin”, will be hosted by Cambodia on April 5. This is supposed to be a great opportunity for all members and partners find ways to resolve all problems and differences that the Mekong Region is facing.
As the largest river in Southeast Asia and the sixth longest in the world, the Mekong, originating from the Tibetan Plateau, travels more than 4,300 kilometers southeast and ends in the South China Sea. This is also the river linking up six countries, namely China, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, not only geographically but also culturally and economically.
Currently, more than 70 million people (equivalent to one-third of the total population of the four countries – Thailand, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) are living in the Mekong River basin which covers an area of 795,000 square kilometres. Eighty percent of the population living in the basin are dependent on agriculture and the river’s resources.
However, in recent decades, the future sustainable development of the Mekong River basin has been severely hampered as a result of the impact of socio-economic development.
The construction of water reservoirs and hydropower stations on the Mekong mainstream, especially in the upper section, has not only attracted the attention of the region but also of experts around the world.
According to the results of remote sensing analysis by Vietnam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, there are 176 hydropower reservoirs either in operation or under construction within the entire basin. There are eight dams on the main stream, including seven in Yunnan-China and one in Laos.
China plans to build 14 hydropower dams with a combined capacity of 22,590 MW on the Lancang River. Currently, China has already built six out of seven dams in the middle and lower reaches of the Lancang River (Phase I) with a total capacity of over 16,000 MW. At the same time, there has been the construction of six hydroelectric dams in the upstream section of the Lan Thuong River (Phase II).
Furthermore, 11 mainstream hydropower projects have been proposed in the middle section in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. In particular, Laos is expected to build nine hydropower plants (including two of which have officially started, and another which is preparing to start construction). Cambodia is also planning to build two hydropower plants on the Mekong mainstream, namely in Sambor and Stung Treng.
The discharge of the reservoirs in the upper Mekong in China at the beginning of the flood season and the accumulation of water at the beginning of the dry season has led to an increase in flow trends in the first months of the flood season and a decrease in first months of the dry season. Due to the weather changes resulting from El Nino, the entire Mekong basin had to endure a very severe dry season in 2015-2016 with the Mekong Delta having experienced particularly serious impacts of the drought. The river flow rates into the Mekong River Delta were at a historical low in the last 100 years.
The large reservoirs on the upper Mekong mainstream retain substantial amounts of silt and sediment which would otherwise be deposited on the lower plains. It has been estimated that the total amount of silt and sediment could be reduced by as much as 65 percent. If the sediment is held back by the upstream hydropower projects in China, only about 15 million tons sedimentation, less than 10 percent of natural conditions could reach the Mekong Delta.
The impacts of the mainstream hydropower cascade could lead to a 50 percent reduction in total fish catches for both Vietnam and Cambodia. Dams on the tributaries will also increase the loss of fish catches in the area. This will adversely affect food security, livelihoods, social and economic welfare of most of the people living in the floodplains of Cambodia and the Mekong Delta of Vietnam who are dependent, directly or indirectly, on fisheries and other related occupations.
People’s lives are being severely impacted by environmental degradation and the loss of natural resources. This situation is being further exacerbated by the increase in the demand for water and energy as well as the change in the river’s natural flow due to the development of river infrastructure. Increased pressure on degraded water resources has led to an increase in conflicts between upstream and downstream users.
Resolving the challenges faced by the Mekong River is no longer the responsibility of a single country but it requires the united cooperation of the concerned countries with the support of the international community.
With more than 60 years of experience, the MRC serves today as a unique platform for water diplomacy and regional cooperation in which member countries share the benefits of common water resources. It also acts as a regional knowledge hub on water resources management that helps to inform decision-making processes based on scientific evidence. Overall, the MRC is an established organisation with a clear mandate, procedures, strategies, guidelines and knowledge products that help ensure the Mekong is utilised for the countries’ benefit and the peoples’ well-being.
The MRC Summit is convened every four years, bringing together political leaders to address the prevailing challenges and opportunities facing the Mekong Basin. It is an opportunity for the heads of governments of the four MRC member countries to revisit the commitments made four years earlier, and agree on strategies for the future and beyond.
Institute of Water Resources Planning (IWRP) Hanoi