The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established in 1995 to strengthen joint efforts and partnerships for the sustainable management and development of water resources in mainland South-East Asia. The MRC includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, but not China. Beijing established the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, to give it a greater say in regional development issues.
The MRC has long been criticised for being weak, especially now as the Mekong River is suffering a drought that has seen water levels drop to the lowest level in 100 years. Though this drought has been blamed on a lack of rainfall, its severity is ‘exacerbated by the impact of upstream dams’. China operates 11 dams on the Mekong, which store and control up to 50 per cent of its water. With drought and disruptions to water flow expected to become more common, there are fears that the long-term effects could cause Vietnam to “lose the delta” at some point this century. The country could potentially lose a major part of its rice, fruit and vegetable production, which accounts for nearly 25 per cent of its GDP.
The Vietnamese Government estimates that drought and increasing salinity will affect 362,000 hectares of rice and 136,000 hectares of fruit trees in the Mekong Delta this year, while more than 120,000 households could experience water shortages. The drought began when the critical monsoon rains, which usually start in late May in the Mekong region, failed to arrive until late in the season and did not last as long as usual.
When the monsoon rains arrive, they normally produce a flood pulse that brings with it enormous quantities of fish larvae and tiny fish that are swept into Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, where they mature. Scientists have been collecting samples of these fish and larvae every year, but so far this year sub-normal water levels have produced only a weak flood pulse and the researchers have not seen any dispersal of larvae. This could lead to a shortage of fish, which is the main source of protein for people living in the region.
Dry conditions, driven by the El Niño weather phenomenon and possibly exacerbated by climate change, persisted well into July. The situation was further intensified by hydropower dam operators in China and Laos withholding water. The prevalence of “hungry water” in the Mekong, that is clear water free of sediment, has been attributed to the operation of the Xayaburi Dam in Laos. Upstream dams are preventing the nutrient-rich sediment from travelling downstream, where it is vital to both agricultural production and the protection of coastal areas from erosion.
A consistent flow of water and sediment also prevents the salination of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Low water flows at the mouth of the river allow seawater to intrude inland. Currently, salinity levels have risen to reach up to four grams per litre. This intrusion has extended 40-90 kilometres inland in all of the Mekong River’s branches in the delta. Salinity levels between two and ten grams are unsafe for most crops.
Many rice farmers in the delta have been unable to plant their main crop, raising fears of a heavily diminished harvest this autumn. As Vietnam is the world’s third-largest rice producer, a poor yield could put the food security of millions of people at risk. The wellbeing of the Mekong River has been a rising concern; evidenced by the expanding network of anti-dam movements in Thailand. Despite local concerns, however, those in charge of maintaining the river seem to value it more as a source of hydropower, rather than as a fertile agricultural resource.
Many are calling for greater regional co-operation and for the MRC to take on a stronger role, rather than continue to let countries manage their own sections of the river independently. The organisation recently signed a pledge with the LMC, in an attempt to encourage both groups to work closer together.
The MRC’s chief strategy and partnership officer Anoulak Kittikhoun stated that ‘China is becoming more open, which is something we welcome’. When China conducted testing at Jinghong Dam this January, it gave a week’s advance notice to countries downstream; previously, according to Kittikhoun, China did not give notice. If this trend continues and China lends an ear to the downstream countries more often, this will be a promising development for co-operation within the region.