Mekong Eye

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History’s Mirror on the Mekong: Are We Caught in the Hydrologic Trap?

As the world recognizes World Water Day, The Mekong Eye examines recent worrying news events that could threaten the Mekong River Basin.

Wikipedia: Phou si - Mekong River - Luang Prabang Laos

By The Mekong Eye

Mekong Region, March 21, 2016

More evidence now points to water scarcity as a major factor in the demise of this region’s famed ancient civilization of Angkor. During the 14th century their elaborate network of canals and irrigation infrastructure began running dry as technology and social structures could not fend off a changing climate. The ruins of the Angkor Empire once stretched over more than 1,000 square kilometers, making it the most extensive urban complex of the preindustrial world, It attracts millions of tourists each year who come to marvel at what was accomplished the preceding five centuries – and ponder what went wrong. These tourists might well be strolling within a crystal ball, as once back in the comforts of their Siem Reap hotels, they read headlines indicating that beyond those crumbling Angkor temples, history may be repeating itself up and down the Mekong Basin.


Water near Angkor Wat in Cambodia mirrors a temple from the Angkor era. Are we mirroring history? (Image: Pixabay)


As the UN promotes World Water Day this week, the past two months alone have seen a range of troubling events arising in the Mekong region:

  • Following urgent pleas from drought-stricken Vietnam, China announced last week that through April 10th it will release additional water from its Jinghong hydropower station to flow 4,000 km downstream to stricken farmers in the Vietnam Delta. Mekong River flows there are the lowest since 1926, and some 1 million hectares – half the Delta’s arable land –have been damaged by saltwater intrusion. The week prior, at a conference hosted by Can Tho University’s Research Institute for Climate Change, it was stressed that China’s dam building along the upper Mekong has worsened the drought and salinity in the Delta, generating annual losses in seafood and agriculture of US$ 233 million annually.  And with 50% of the Mekong’s sediment originating from Tibetan and Chinese headwaters, the long-term impact on the Delta’s aquatic ecology, agriculture and physical make-up could be significant.
  • Last month, citing its own drought concerns, Thailand began pumping water from the Mekong to fill empty reservoirs in parched northeastern provinces. Though immediate capacity of temporary pumps allow for withdrawals at only 15 cubic meters per second, plans are underway for installations capable of ten times that amount. Such diversions require consultation with the four-country, transboundary Mekong River Commission. However, no formal notification from the Thai government has come forward, sparking criticism from Vietnam and Cambodia of further depletions in fresh water flows into their countries.
  • Also last month Cambodian civil society groups called for Laos’ Don Sahong hydropower dam project to be discussed when Southeast Asian leaders met with US President Barack Obama in California. While no communiqué pertaining to such a discussion materialized, the intervention is the latest attempt to put the brakes on the Lao PDR’s continued ambitions to erect mainstream dams across the Lower Mekong. The projects continue despite extensive diplomatic opposition from Vietnam and Cambodia due to unprecedented threats to the region’s food security and biological diversity. Meanwhile, at the International Water Resources conference in Vientiane last week, Laos reportedthat it is moving forward with the construction of over 350 hydropower projects to add more than 26,000 megawatts of new capacity to the regional grid. Yet, as Thayer Scudder, the world’s leading experts on the impacts of dams, told the New York Times two years ago, Laos lacks the capacity to manage the environmental and social impacts of any of its dam projects.
  • While Cambodia expresses skepticism at the potential for upstream projects to impact fish migration, sediment transport and food security, it’s fully comfortable engaging in its own efforts to do the same along a critical Mekong tributary. The Sesan 2 dam is also beset with controversy surrounding resettlement and compensation inconsistent with Cambodia’s own social and environmental regulations.
  • The main agenda item at the Mekong River Commission’s bi-annual meeting last weekwas a major reorganization strategy precipitated by international donors slashing contributions by 50%, from $115 million to $53 million over the next five years. Concerns are of a lack of transparency, fraud and an unwillingness to follow the Commission’s own findings, such as ten year moratorium on members building mainstream dams. “Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam requested Laos to study environmental impacts, but Laos has denied them,” Te Navuth, secretary general of Cambodia National Mekong Committee told the Phenom Penh Post. “They said that this project [Don Sahong] has no effect on anyone.”

As the Economist reported, threats to this Lower Mekong society of sixty million if current development trends continue are extensive. New narratives and prospects of sustainable dams increasingly filter into the Mekong discourse, but history tells the region to exercise caution. Many NGOs and donors were optimistic 15 years ago when the World Commission on Dams brought forward its recommendations, but both in the Mekong region and beyond, its impact has fallen short of expectation.

The renowned anthropologist, Marvin Harris pointed out in his famous work, Cannibals and Kings how societies run up against the “hydrologic trap”. As the mighty Khmer empire discovered, once a society commits to a particular technological and ecological strategy for solving problems, “it may not be possible to do anything about the consequences of an unintelligent choice for a long time to come.”


Lead image: Phou si, Mekong River near Luang Prabang Laos (Wikipedia)


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