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The case for greater ASEAN action in the Mekong

Image by Creative Commons. Villagers and Fisherfolk protest Xayaburi.

The Mekong River is often overlooked in discussions about key issues facing ASEAN and the Indo-Pacific. Many critics have even claimed that ASEAN has remained largely dormant on the issues facing the subregion, the most prevalent of which are flooding and damming. Why, though, given the vast natural resources and unrivalled importance of the river for the seventy-million people living in the subregion, has ASEAN not focused on these problems as much as others?

The Mekong flows through all five of the mainland Southeast Asian states: Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. The river provides fish for food, water for transport of goods and irrigation of crops, and is extremely important to the local economies. The Lower Mekong Basin fisheries is the largest in the world, with a yield of 4.4 million tonnes per year and a total value of US$17 billion, contributing to 18 per cent of Cambodia’s GDP. Moreover, two-thirds of the population of the Lower Mekong are actively involved in fisheries, which produce 20 per cent of the world’s freshwater fish catch, 15 per cent of the world’s rice and provide over 50 per cent of the animal protein for the surrounding population. 

Despite so many people depending on the river both directly and through the enormous contributions to Mekong country economies, ASEAN has failed to adequately address the issues of damming and flooding. There are already over 100 dams in operation on the Mekong, with more than 300 more proposed or under construction. In China, the source of the river, there are 11 “mega-dams”. While the dams provide hope of generating energy through hydropower, the costs often outweigh the benefits. 

These dams block the natural migratory pathways of fish and have trapped large amounts of sediment behind their walls. The Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency that works with Mekong country governments to jointly manage shared water and natural resources, released a damning 2018 study of the impact of dams. The Commission found that due to dams, fish stocks could fall by 40 per cent and there would be a 97 per cent reduction in sediment flow downstream which reduces soil fertility and impedes agriculture. Dams are often built without consultation among Mekong countries, representing both a threat to natural resource security and a source of political tension. 

The ever-present issue of flooding, which occurs annually in the region, only serves to exacerbate the problems associated with damming. Flooding is both a blessing and a curse to the Mekong. The average cost of flooding, including damage to communities, spoiled crops and reduced food security, ranges from US$60 to 70 million. Conversely, the benefits of the flooding, if managed correctly, provide an annual value of US$8 to 10 billion by diluting polluted waters, driving fisheries and improving soil fertility. The combination of flooding and unregulated, uncooperative dam construction has proven to be a harmful mix. 

In 2018, a dam under construction in Laos collapsed due to heavy monsoon rains, releasing massive floodwaters. The water reached as far as northern Cambodia, devastating local populations such as those who lived in the fishing village of Sdao on the Sekong River. The disaster prompted the Lao government to suspend approval of new dams and review those currently under construction. 

Despite these issues that the Mekong faces, ASEAN has remained largely inactive. The ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC), which involves the 10 ASEAN member states plus China, has made slow progress due to inadequate financial resources and little sustained interest by maritime Southeast Asian states. Demonstrating this slow progress, its flagship Kunming-Singapore Rail Link has remained unfinished for two decades.

There are numerous reasons why ASEAN states should strive to solve these issues. Intra-ASEAN trade can be dramatically increased if goods from maritime Southeast Asia reach the Mekong and beyond due to its sea and land connectivity. Also, ASEAN centrality could be threatened and the split between maritime and mainland Southeast Asian nations widened if ASEAN does not act. It is in ASEAN’s interests to be viewed as a beneficial regional organisation that represents the interests of Mekong countries, especially as external powers gain a presence in the region. 

What could ASEAN do, then, to attempt to resolve these issues? ASEAN could develop firm regional standards and regulations for dam construction that ensure strict safety measures are met. If ASEAN countries enhanced their cooperation on Mekong issues, they could speak in unity towards China regarding damming, as all ASEAN states stand to benefit from the Mekong. Finally, ASEAN could reform existing mechanisms such as the AMBDC with increased funding to signal the importance of the region to ASEAN centrality. While these changes may be hard to implement, the Mekong is too important both for ASEAN and the populations that depend on it to be left to wither away.

Infographic by Josh Martelli

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