Unite to survive – or die alone

Gerald Flynn

Riparian Southeast Asian nations must recognise the urgency of cooperation on the Mekong river

At the end of November, the Mekong River Commission despatched delegates to Phnom Penh, where they met to unveil their 2020 to 2025 drought management strategy.

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Cambodia, they pointed out, would be among the worst affected.

This comes following a bleak prognosis on the health of the Mekong – water levels have reached their lowest in more than 60-years, Cambodian fishing communities reported a 70 percent drop in catches for October this year and with more hydroelectric dams on the way, the prospect of recovery is waning.

Beyond the obvious power shortages causing disruption to productivity across those nations dependent on the Mekong for energy, the impact of rural-to-urban migration will soon begin to set in as fishing and agricultural communities seek refuge in the region’s cities. Worse still, the slow, sad death of the Mekong will scratch at the already fraught regional ties that bind, further straining geopolitical cooperation precisely at a time when such cooperation is vital to the survival of all riparian nations.


Rapid transformation


Last week, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific (CSCAP) released its Regional Security Outlook 2020.

This year’s annual report from CSCAP sought to address key issues affecting the region, as well as providing policy recommendations to cope with the rapid transformation currently sweeping through the nation.

Chheang Vannarith, president of Asian Vision Institute – a Phnom Penh based think tank that typically tackles financial and economic policies – contributed an article that underscored the urgency for genuine cooperation when managing the Mekong.

“The Mekong River is in danger. Unsustainable and unfair management of transboundary water resources and weak regional institutions are the key geopolitical political risks facing the Mekong region,” says Chheang, adding that the construction of yet more dams is seriously altering the ecological, geopolitical and socio-economic makeup of the Mekong.


World’s 12th largest river


Running through six countries, the Mekong is the world’s 12th longest river and harbours more biodiversity than all other rivers barring the Amazon. It is also a key supporting element in the Tonle Sap lake – the world’s largest freshwater fishery, which provides some 70 percent of Cambodia’s protein intake. Both the Mekong and the Tonle Sap lake are essential resources for more than 60 million people.

So why is this natural resource being so wantonly abused?

“Many factors are driving up the demand for water, including population growth, urbanisation, industrialisation, intensive agriculture development and energy demand,” writes Chheang.

“The complexity and interdependence of the issues and interests associated with a resource such as the Mekong River have been plain for a long time but resource nationalism and geopolitical competition have diluted sensible responses and allowed risks to escalate,” he says.


Nationalised imbalance


This nationalised imbalance can be seen clearly, with China’s 11 dams contributing more than 40 percent of the water into the river during the dry season. Laos is hoping to add a further 63 dams to its collection that so far stands at 64 – when lined up against Vietnam’s 16 dams and Thailand’s nine, it’s impossible to say that the two dams Cambodia operates cause as much damage to the Mekong.

While Cambodia may be lacking in dams, it has contributed to the ecological devastation of the Mekong through aggressive sand mining – the product of which is essential in the construction of dams. In 2015, Cambodia was the seventh greatest exporter of sand – having created a $53 million industry, but this has reportedly dropped to $36 million in 2018 as export capacity has been reduced.

A Public Broadcasting Service special report highlighted the extent of the damage wrought on Cambodia’s fishing communities by sand mining, exposing discrepancies between exports of sand reported by Cambodia and imported Cambodian sand recorded in Singapore, prompting many experts to warn the Kingdom that sand is a finite resource.


Tangible Cooperation


But now is not the time for pointing fingers and casting aspersions – now is the time for unity and tangible cooperation all the way down the banks of the Mekong.

“Any examination of water resource management in the Mekong region will expose the lack of strategic trust – seen in the limited transparency and reluctance to share information – among the riparian countries,” explains Chheang, noting that distrust has been the key stumbling block to regional cooperation on the issue so far.

This distrust perhaps stems from the principles of Asean – the policy of non-interference that has allegedly maintained a tense version of peace across the region, is now seen as undermining efforts at collaboration at a time when it is needed most.

Regional security think tank – the Asia Society Policy Institute – foresaw this in a 2017 report that featured contributions from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, Barack Obama’s former national security adviser Thomas Donilon and US-China relations expert Wang Jisi from Peking University.


Deepening mistrust


“In the absence of greater transparency, technological advancements are deepening mistrust between regional neighbours and leading nations to skew their own investments in an effort to hedge against other countries’ perceived advantages,” they wrote two years ago, but the words remain ever more pertinent today.

This is Chheang’s central message too – the need for connectivity rather than isolation is now too pressing to ignore. There needs to be an effective and open sharing of knowledge and expertise, he argues, saying that the lack of institutionalised data sharing is currently exacerbating the problems facing the Mekong.

There is a clear web of connections between the crises Southeast Asia will face should we allow the Mekong to perish – energy, water and food are all intrinsically entwined in one transboundary resource and as such Chheang highlights the need for a holistic approach that engages all relevant stakeholders from across each affected nation.


Water security


“The Asean vision 2025 does not have a clear policy on water security… Asean should include water security in its community vision and raise the profile of water security in the political security agenda of Asean and its member states. Institutional connectivity between Asean and the Mekong River Commission needs to be enhanced in order to generate better policies through multi-stakeholder dialogue and greater coordination,” argues Chheang, who calls for greater preventative diplomacy in the wake of the Mekong’s most dire analysis yet.

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