The Mekong River Basin is one of the most contested rivers in the world as six countries with unequal political power and differing degrees of social, scientific, and institutional capacity have been implementing projects with inadequate regard for their neighboring states’ development plans.
Until recently, the 1995 Mekong River Agreement, created to promote cooperation and coordinate development in the basin, was relatively successful at guiding the member states toward common goals. But now, weaknesses in the Agreement have been exposed as cumulative hydropower and other developments have reach a critical stage. China, the main engine for regional economic growth, has also been a role model for unilateral hydropower development on the Mekong. Laos is constructing the first two of multiple dams planned for the mainstream Mekong, despite concerns over projected losses of wild-capture fisheries that millions of rural poor in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) depend upon. Vietnam and Cambodia, while protesting Laos’ dams, are also investing in their own Mekong projects. In December 2016, Thailand expects to release plans for a huge water diversion from the Mekong that would remove enough water to irrigate 5 million hectares of farmland (Thu, 2016).
Hovering over all these projects is climate change. In spring 2016, the Mekong experienced the worst drought in some 90 years; this event may portend a glimpse of future extreme events as virtually all regional climate models project increasing impacts into the coming decades.
While the Mekong Agreement was never designed to be an international treaty to guide the sharing of transboundary resources, it is clear that tipping points around the Mekong’s hydrological and social systems are now close at hand. It is also apparent that, despite its importance as a shared transboundary river basin where water and other resources are fundamental to the ecological, economic, and political stability of all the Mekong states, they are still searching for a way forward.
Environmental security may offer answers to the transboundary common pool resource dilemmas of Mekong River states.
Since the 1990s, driven by environmental and economic change in an increasingly interdependent world, an environmental security framework linking national security with resource scarcity has become more influential. Security is no longer just about maintaining state borders through military means; it now includes non-traditional components such as managing ecological degradation, maintaining energy and water security, and aiding human adaptation to climate change (Grumbine, 2014). Major goals of environmental security are to maintain the critical ecosystem services that people depend upon, reduce the ecological and social risks from new water, food and energy developments, and support humans’ capacity to adapt to change in the uncertain world of the 21st century. Environmental security goals become all the more important when shared natural and social resources create degrees of dependency across state borders. This is exactly the state of affairs in the Mekong.
But environmental security in the Mekong is not just about hydrology, hydropower, and hydropolitics. There are six drivers of change — ecosystem degradation, food, energy, and water issues, human development, and climate change — that have to be cooperatively managed.
Biodiversity and ecosystem functions across Mekong ecosystems are under growing pressure. From 1973-2009, forest cover in the region (excluding China) was reduced by about 30 percent. A primary cause in every country is the broad land-use transition away from smallholder, swidden-based agriculture to commercial cash crops. For freshwater ecosystems, plans to build many more dams on both the mainstream and tributaries of the Mekong yield a poor prognosis for aquatic and floodplain health.
Given that the Mekong accounts for about 13 percent of the worlds’ wild-capture fisheries with tens of millions of people dependent to some degree on this resource, the key driver of food insecurity is dam development. If all mainstream dams are constructed, Mekong fisheries are projected to decrease by 27-44 percent (Ward and Smagjl, 2013).
Energy demand is projected to increase dramatically for all Mekong countries. Demand in Thailand is projected to double by 2030, while demand in Vietnam may triple (Middleton and Dore, 2015). Today, Thailand uses natural gas for about 70 percent of its electricity, but domestic supplies of this fuel may be exhausted by 2020. Laos remains committed to building over 100 hydropower projects. China is often blamed for downstream impacts due to its many Mekong dams, yet there are complex energy export and investment links between all Mekong states.
Water security in the Mekong is paramount. Major issues are: impacts of hydropower development on riverine hydrology; effects of dams on local peoples’ livelihoods; and lack of integrated analysis of cost/benefit tradeoffs within and between countries. If all of the proposed dams are built, projections show a 96 percent loss in sediment load in the Mekong Delta (Kondolf et al., 2014) with serious impacts on downstream fish and food production. And by 2050, agricultural demand for water may reach 32-50 percent of the Mekong’s total flow, creating competition with fisheries livelihoods and hydropower operations.
Over the next decade, the human population in the five Mekong basin countries (excluding China) is projected to increase by 23.6 million with most of this growth in cities. However, except for Thailand and China, the Mekong countries rank low in their capacity to manage change. The Asian Development Bank has funded roads, railways, and pipelines across the Mekong to stimulate economic growth. But these efforts have been poorly coordinated with environmental and social planning.
Climate projections show mean temperature increases over 20C by 2050 for the Mekong region (Zomer et al., 2016). River flows will likely increase at least to midcentury, but runoff may interact with the greater likelihood of extreme events (i.e. flooding). Due to the high risk of sea level rise and salinization, the Mekong Delta is of particular concern as it is so important for global rice production.
Of course, there are many links between these six drivers of change. But one thing is certain — as was made clear in spring 2016 due to drought across the region, change is already causing alterations to the clean air, water, and hydrological and nutrient cycles that people in the Mekong depend on.
Much can be done by the countries in the Mekong to strengthen environmental security. Here are some promising management strategies keyed to each stressor mentioned above.
To reverse ecosystem degradation, more transboundary environmental impact assessment would establish a strong basis to improve regional ecosystem conditions. Given the Mekong nations’ commitment to economic development, various payments for ecosystem services schemes are obvious candidates for reducing loss of ecosystem functioning.
With demand growing and farmers shifting from subsistence to cash crops, increasing food security in the Mekong means using less water to produce more food. More emphasis should be placed on local water storage, not just large-scale plans to divert Mekong water for irrigation schemes. Projections of dam impacts leading to reduced food security must be explicitly factored in to policy decisions. And policy coordination between the food and water sectors needs to be improved throughout the region.
The dynamism in demand forecasts and supply options create great uncertainty in energy management. Some scenarios show that by 2025, 25 percent of Mekong energy could come from renewables. Meanwhile, the Greater Mekong Subregion program seeks to build traditional electricity grids spanning the region. New energy from hydropower development will require coordinated dam operations among and between countries but this cannot occur without more collaborative planning.
Because transboundary water resources are key to environmental security in the Mekong, there are abundant ideas about more cooperative ways to manage waters. All observers emphasize greater sharing of flow data and dam building/operations. New efforts are exploring how to allow sediments behind Mekong dams to pass on downstream. There is a Hydropower By Design planning framework being tested in Myanmar that holds great promise for public-private management.
Low development capacity and closed systems of governance make progress difficult in strengthening the human elements of environmental security in the Mekong. But security is about managing, not eliminating change. Recent studies show how China can better manage the costs and benefits of hydropower to support human livelihoods (Tilt and Gerkey, 2016). Links between improved land-use planning and reduced human livelihood vulnerability have been mapped in Laos and Myanmar. To manage urban human security, research from Vietnam has established ways to couple city planning with flood control measures. Many innovative practices to manage the social elements of environmental security are beginning to be tested in the Mekong.
To build climate change resilience, the Mekong states need to increase their capacity to do integrated planning. Studies from Thailand and Vietnam show that local governments can support peoples’ climate adaptations through building farmers’ technical capacity, subsidizing credit, and linking products with market demand. However, in the Mekong, solutions to climate issues are often less a matter of technical capacity and more an issue of governance choices and political will.
The problem-solving power of an environmental security framework threads together human and ecological issues to showcase the importance of coordinated action across multiple sectors. Environmental security focuses on managing ecosystem, political, economic, and social risks that can undermine state stability in the face of change. This may better capture the attention of regional governments intent on maintaining power. Other planning frameworks such as Integrated River Basin Management do not consider politics. Environmental security also situates the shifts that are occurring in the Mekong’s natural and human resources within the shared economic growth and development goals of the transboundary neighbors. But environmental security is not a panacea and remains untested in the Mekong. And governance barriers in the region continue to act as strong constraints on transboundary cooperation.
Grumbine, R.E. (2014). Assessing environmental security in China. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 12, 403-411.
Kondolf, G.M., Rubin, Z.K., and Minear, J.T. (2014). Dams on the Mekong: Cumulative sediment starvation. Water Resources Research, 506), 5158-5169.
Middleton, C., and Dore, J. (2015). Transboundary water and electricity governance in mainland Southeast Asia. International Journal of Water Governance, 3, 93-120.
Thu, S. (2016). Mekong basin stirs up region: Thai water diversion project could have mega risks. Mekongeye. Retrieved from http://www.mekongeye.com/2016/07/08/mekong-basin-stirs-up-region-thai-water-diversion-project-could-have-mega-risks/
Tilt, B., and Gerkey, D. (2016). Dams and population displacement on China’s Upper Mekong River: Implications for social capital and social-ecological resilience. Global Environmental Change, 36, 153-162.
Ward, J., and Smajgl, A. (eds.) (2013). The Water-Food-Energy Nexus in the Mekong Region: Assessing Development Strategies Considering Cross-Sectoral and Transboundary Impacts. New York, Heidelberg, Dordrecht, and London: Springer.
Zomer, R.J., Trabucco, A., Wang, M. C., and Xu, J.C. (2016). Projected climate change impact on hydrology, bioclimatic conditions, and terrestriale in the Asian Highlands. ICRAF Working Paper 222, World Agroforestry Centre East and Central Asia, Kunming, China. doi:10.5716/WP16006.PDF