Asia’s water woes are worsening. Already the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, Asia now faces a severe drought that has parched a vast region extending from southern Vietnam to central India. This has exacerbated political tensions, because it has highlighted the impact of China’s dam-building policy on the environment and on water flows to the dozen countries located downstream.
Opinion & Blogs
The right of citizens and communities to protect the environment against harmful development projects is now back in the draft constitution, thanks to fierce pressure by civil society nationwide. So people can relax now, right? Not a chance.
Face it. The military regime is in it for the long haul. Their diktats are the ultimate rules of the land. The community rights clause in the draft will be of no help because it has also been heavily diluted, turning active citizens and communities into state vassals.
Since the beginning of this year, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) has issued a series of orders under the special powers of Section 44 in the interim charter to eliminate legal obstruction and fast-track mega projects. First it was an order to bypass land-zoning laws to speed up the government’s project to create special economic zones in 10 border provinces, which also faces fierce opposition from locals. That was in January.
China’s pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus in recent times. Its behaviour is much less about maintaining the ‘status quo’, and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences. This revisionism is likely to become the primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia.
A view of the dam at the Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese section of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Yunnan province, 20 May 2013. (Photo: AAP).
Nowhere are China’s revisionist aims more evident than in the South China Sea and the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
One of the country’s top bankers is stressing the need for faster action to transform Thailand into a hub for CLMV countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam).
Kevin Tan, CEO of HSBC Thailand, was speaking during an interview on Vietnam’s increasing attractiveness to foreign investors. Vietnam’s gross domestic product grew a whopping 797 per cent between 1995 and 2014, from US$20.74 billion to $186.2 billion. Thailand’s GDP growth was sluggish in comparison, rising from $169.28 billion to $404.8 billion over the same period.
And with big names like Intel, Apple and Samsung now showing interest in Vietnam, it seems the times are against Thailand.
China’s slowing economy would not seem a good time to scrap hydroelectric dam projects. That would seem especially so in southwest Yunnan’s Nu River valley, among the nation’s poorest regions. Yet provincial authorities have decided to put the way of life of villagers and the environment first by calling a halt to small-scale schemes. It is a hopeful sign for those in the area and downstream in Myanmar and Thailand who rely on the waters for their livelihoods.
The valley is a Unesco World Heritage site included for its scenery and biodiversity, accounting for 6,000 different types of plants and half of China’s animal and fish species. Plans in 2004 for a 13-dam cascade to be built in the upper reaches of the Nu were shelved under pressure the following year, but revived in 2013 on a lesser scale with an eye on meeting national renewal energy targets. The province’s Communist Party chief, Li Jiheng, said earlier this month that projects for coal mines and small hydro plants beside the river and on tributaries would not go ahead. In five to 10 years, with vegetation restored, the valley would be a tourist attraction rivaling the US’ Grand Canyon.
There has always been a special bond between China and Thailand, which hosts the largest overseas Chinese community in the world. In Thai culture, the Chinese influence is easily traced, through descendants whose origins can be found in rural areas of the southern Chinese mainland, from where their ancestors fled poverty, communism and political oppression to the more hospitable environs of Thailand.
China has always been perceived as a friend — a friend indeed who never leaves a friend in need. The phrase is not just a cliche. Comrades from the mainland have proven their love. During the tom yam koong economic crisis in 1997, this friend lent the debt-ridden Thailand much-needed funds, while other friends gave it the cold shoulder.
China is demonstrating that it has real power to control and manage the Mekong River, as Beijing launches a diplomatic campaign to engage with affected countries downstream. This situation has become clear after China’s contacts with the other five countries along the river – Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Physically, about half the nearly […]
At first glance, it looks beneficent. As countries along the Lower Mekong river that snakes through mainland Southeast Asia struggled in the grip of a severe drought, China announced it would release water from its upstream Jinghong dam over nearly a month from March 15. The announcement was partly intended as a goodwill gesture one week ahead of the inaugural Lancang-Mekong Cooperation summit of leaders of the six Mekong region countries.
But while the water release will spell some immediate relief for the drought-stricken region, it portends future geopolitical tensions between China and its southern Mekong neighbors. Having unilaterally accumulated political power by exploiting geography and manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a slew of upriver dams, China appears intent to set the regional water management rules as it deems fit.
The Mekong, which the Chinese refer to as Lancang, is Asia’s seventh-longest river and provides livelihoods and habitats for riverfront communities and natural wildlife throughout its meandering flow from China and Myanmar to Laos and Thailand, down to Cambodia and Vietnam before it reaches the sea. China’s damming of the upper Mekong has long been considered a geopolitical risk for the lower riparian states and a source of potential conflict for the entire Greater Mekong Subregion — encompassing Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. That risk has manifested itself in an inchoate fashion through the annual dry seasons, when about 60 million people in fishing villages and communities along the Mekong are severely affected. But any protest has been silenced by geopolitical realities.
In plain words, the NCPO’s order No.9/2559 can only quicken projects when it assumes the EIA and EHIA will be approved as a rubber stamp. All other attempts to justify it are illogical.
But then again, there is a similar failed logic here as in past suggestions that people grow velvet beans instead of rice, shower less in the face of drought or refrain from making sparks to avoid wildfires.
As the military regime lingers on, the daily dose of illogicality is increasing and becomes more flagrant. If a fast-track solution is ever needed, it’s to expedite the exit of one immodest man’s rule to the more sensible one-man, one-vote.
As Myanmar nears a historic political transition, the incoming National League for Democracy (NLD) will have a lot on their plate. They will face the enormous challenge of steering the country according to their plans. Having struggled for two and a half decades against a hardline military rule, they will have a clearer understanding of […]
The 2030 agenda for sustainable development undoubtedly proposes an exciting vision, and promises a future of peace and prosperity; but these goals will not be easy to achieve unless we develop effective global partnerships and learn from the outcomes of Millennium Development Goals (MDG). We need to investigate both the successes and failures of MDGs, set our focus on result-oriented development, and encourage government and their development partners to think about the linkages between plan, policy, delivery and monitoring in resource mobilisation and management.
This week the hydro-power industry gathered in Vientiane, Laos to attend the International Conference and Exhibition on Water Resources and Hydro-power Development in Asia.
The conference comes at a time when the pace of dam building on the lower Mekong River mainstream appears to be accelerating at a dangerous speed, and it threatens to leave a path of destruction in its wake.