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Environmental Security and Regional Politics in the Mekong Basin

February 26, 2007 // 8:00am10:00am
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By Linden Ellis and Jennifer L. Turner

China is the riparian country of 19 international rivers or lakes. While transboundary water has not yet sparked major disputes among basin countries downstream of China, the potential for conflict is growing in some of the basins—most notably the Mekong. The Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China) is the longest river in Southeast Asia, which begins in Tibet and flows through southwest China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. Of major concern to downstream nations has been China's ongoing and planned development of hydropower dams. The Yunnan provincial government has begun to build a cascade of eight dams on the Mekong, with two already operational and three under construction. China also has undertaken some projects to widen the river to improve navigation, particularly to access oil from Thai refineries. This development is causing serious ecological, economic, and even health problems in the lower reaches of the river, which somewhat undercut the Chinese government's claims that it is a good neighbor to downstream countries.

China is not alone in developing the river without regard to downstream interests, for other riparian countries also are building dams without consulting neighbors. At this 25 February 2007 CHINA ENVIRONMENT FORUM meeting, Evelyn Goh (University of Oxford) discussed some of the conflicts in developing the Mekong, exploring the degree to which Southeast Asian countries can negotiate with China regarding river development projects. Carl Bruch (Environmental Law Institute) presented case studies on two transboundary impact assessments in the Mekong that underscored the challenges in collaboration among the riparian nations to better manage the river.

Development of the Mekong and Regional Relations

China's upstream location means its development on the Mekong exacerbates existing political and geographic power inequalities and creates new insecurities. The primary transboundary concerns stemming from China's development are threefold:

(1) Quantity and quality of water available to downstream states. China is the only riparian country with mainstream hydropower projects, which will lead to great fluctuation of water, as well as damage fisheries and land downstream. However, downstream countries are damming tributaries of the Mekong with a similar intentions and impacts, thus, according to Goh, they are in a morally weak position to oppose China's dams.

(2) Human and ecological security. Between 80 and 90 percent of the downstream inhabitants are dependent on the Mekong River for livelihood and transportation. Therefore, radical flow changes from the upstream dams and navigation channeling will cause many environmental and social impacts (damaging fisheries and development on the banks), and reduce sediment (decreasing nutrients needed for downstream agriculture).

(3) Economic security. Besides the costs of ecological damage on the river, some countries will be put at a disadvantage in the energy market due to China's dams. Laos has been selling power to Thailand; however, Chinese dams will be able to supply cheaper energy to Thailand because they are supported by state funding.

Promoting Regional Development

The Asian Development Bank has been promoting economic integration in the basin through its Greater Mekong Subregion initiatives, which are promoting road building, better navigation, and linking of power grids. The country that strategically stands to gain the most from these infrastructure developments in the Mekong region is China, for they help diversify its trade routes and access to energy. For example, new roads will help China access oil shipments overland through Burma as an alternative to the Malacca Straits. China also will be able to import more oil from Thailand as navigation improves on the Mekong.

Weak Transboundary Impact Assessments

If properly executed, transboundary impact assessments (TIAs) represent important planning tools in promoting more ecologically sustainable development of cross-boundary watersheds. If done in the spirit of strong environmental impact assessments (EIAs), TIAs should include a broad range of stakeholder input to evaluate the potential negative impacts on the environment and the health and welfare of local communities. The Environmental Law Institute, in partnership with the University of Tokyo, examined TIAs carried out in five watersheds in Southeast Asia and Africa. According to the studies, the TIAs were often very inaccurate, consistently underestimating the social and environmental impacts of the projects, although they tended to be more accurate with regards to environmental impacts. Drawing from this research project, Carl Bruch described two flawed TIAs that were done on the Mekong River—one on the Mekong navigation channel project in China and the Se San River Dam on a tributary of the Mekong in Laos.

Politics appear to be the primary source of the inaccuracies in both of these TIAs. For example, in the Se San River Dam case, the technicians performing the study were only permitted to work within an eight-kilometer area on either side of the river and eight kilometers downstream of the dam. They were not allowed to consider the effects further downstream in Cambodia, where as much as $800,000 of material loss has been sustained as a result of this dam. The Se San is a peaking power dam, which releases water when power most needed in the day, which has created huge fluctuations in river flow that have destroyed people's livelihoods inside and around the river. Communities in Cambodia are also seeing an increase in health problems stemming from the dam.

In the first phase of the Mekong navigation project, the Chinese-led TIA declared that no soil erosion would take place as a result of the blasting of 51 shoals and rapids. Notably, some Chinese engineers working on the project refused to blast as many shoals as had been permitted because they feared the impacts on the local communities in China. Most likely, the issue of erosion was grossly downplayed so as not to alarm the Lao government, for the Mekong River marks the political boundary of Laos. The border could change if there was significant soil erosion. Besides a considerably faster water velocity that destroyed islets, fisheries, and winter garden plots on the banks in Laos, more intense floods destroyed homes along the river. One serious unanticipated social cost of improved navigation has been the growth of illegal trade in wildlife, drugs, and timber along the Mekong, both in and out of China.

The TIAs in the Mekong were neither transparent and nor open to public input. Thus, material losses were likely greater than necessary because data was not shared with any of the affected populations. Furthermore, these two TIAs did not allow for any public dialogue. Partially due to this lack of participation, the TIA reports overlooked what should have been obvious damaging impacts of the projects. The speakers noted that the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank could play an important role in acting as an "honest broker" to evaluate the quality of future TIAs on the Mekong. In great contrast to the Mekong TIAs, Bruch noted that broad public participation in the Lake Victoria TIA on how to control excess water hyacinth led to a particularly effective TIA report, which helped the governments to design an effective removal strategy with considerable community participation.

Conclusion

The speakers concluded that while China was not solely to blame for the cross boundary environmental and social degradation on the river, it could do more. For example, China is not a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which collects much of the data on the region and promotes cooperation between the riparian stakeholders. While the MRC lacks the power to influence China's development of the river, Goh noted that downstream countries are overall hesitant to ask China to alter its plans, in part because they are also beneficiaries of Chinese aid and access to its markets. If TIAs on the Mekong become more transparent and include greater participation of all stakeholders, they hold promise of addressing some tensions over the basin's development. This may be possible since China is notably improving the openness of its domestic EIA processes. (See China Environment Series issue 8 for details on these developments).

As for the affected downstream countries, the speakers suggested that they use other regional organizations, such as ASEAN, to push their Mekong agendas with the Chinese, as well as focus on improving their own water policies to relieve some of the strain on the river.

More information on the Mekong at:

 

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