May 24, 2011

The Mekong River: Cooperation or Competition in Southeast Asia?

Christine is in Asia this week to conduct research for the South China Sea project
the Natural Security team is working on with some of our CNAS colleagues. One
place she’ll be visiting during her time abroad is the Lower Mekong River Basin
(LMRB), an area shared by Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. The LMRB was recently
in the news when Laos’s plan to build a hydropower dam
sparked tensions
with its neighbors. Having researched this for our South China Sea project,
it’s worth discussing some of what we’ve learned.

First, what makes the river so important? The river serves
as a lifeline for the region’s 60 million people in two ways: agricultural production
(primarily rice) and fisheries. Together these two industries
employ 85 percent of the population
and feed nearly everyone. While it is
well known how important rice is in the daily diets for people from these
countries, perhaps less known is how important fish is as well. In Cambodia,
for instance, fish accounts for 80
percent of the nation’s total animal protein
consumption. It’s therefore no
trivial matter that the lower Mekong River, the world’s
largest inland fish source, accounts for 20 percent
of the world’s
freshwater fish.

The river’s importance and the shared threat
China’s economic growth may pose to the river
have led Laos, Cambodia,
Vietnam and Thailand to, in general, adopt a cooperative approach in developing
the region’s water resources. In 1957, these states established the Mekong
Committee, which existed until
1995 when it was supplemented and expanded
by the Mekong River Commission.
These regional organizations have provide a forum to resolve any controversies
that arise, the most
recent example being Laos’s decision to delay the construction of a new dam

However, continued cooperation in this region is being threatened
by the rising
demand for power
that is accompanying much of the economic growth in the
region. Even if the countries don’t need the power entirely, as is largely
the case in Laos
, the potential revenue from selling it to neighbors may be
compelling some governments to develop energy resources.  For example, a 2010 report by the Mekong River
Commission found that the 12 dams
proposed by Cambodia and Laos would generate between 3.3 and 3.7 billion
dollars in annual revenue

At the same time, the environmental effects of these dams could
severely threaten the long-term viability of the river. Already, the four dams
that China constructed in 1993 are believed to have contributed, at least in
part, to some of the region’s extreme environmental events, including
severe flooding in 2008 and then a crippling drought in 2010
. Similarly, one
report estimated that if 11 of Cambodia’s and Laos’s proposed dams are built, the
fish population could decrease between 23 and 42 percent from its size in 2000

It is clear that the environmental costs would burden all
four nations, while revenues from the hydroelectric dams would only benefit some
of them. The region needs continued cooperation in order to mitigate the risks
that could result from continued environmental degradation. The United States
could play a role in facilitating that cooperation. Should the Mekong River
Commission fail to resolve these standing issues effectively, it may be prudent
for the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) and the new U.S.
ambassador to ASEAN
to help restore the cooperative ties between these
Southeast Asian neighbors.   

Photo: The Mekong
River stretches approximately 2,700 miles in length through Southeast Asia.
Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.