Water Management and Power Plays in the Mekong

10 February 2017

by Clémence Le Liepvre

The Mekong River is often referred to as the “life blood” as well as the “heart and soul” of mainland Southeast Asia, signifying its importance in, and for, the region. As the the seventh longest river in Asia, the Mekong rises in China and flows through Myanmar, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the South China Sea.  The river is also the world’s largest inland fishery, which leads to extremely fertile soils. As such, the region through which the Mekong flows, has been referred to as the “rice bowl of Asia”, thus providing food security for centuries.

More recently, a new aspect of the Mekong has been promoted and is facing further exploitation, its hydropower capacities. The rapid drop of the river gives the Mekong River Basin a great potential of 53,000 MW. The exploitation of this potential is regarded as a great opportunity for the development of less prosperous regions, notably in Laos and in the Chinese province of the Yunnan. Additionally, since hydropower is a renewable energy source, dams are seen as a way to respond to the region’s increasing demand for clean energy. However, the building of dams, especially on the mainstream branch of the river, is not without environmental repercussions- despite the mitigating measures put in place. Moreover, because of the region’s reliance on the Mekong for fishery and agriculture, environmental consequences have great economical and societal risks for those relying on the river for subsistence. By affecting the natural flood-drought cycles, dams change the natural water levels of the river, which in turn negatively impacts the productivity of the Mekong’s ecosystem. Further, dams can block fish migration and trap the sediments that make the region so  fertile, thus resulting in fishery and farming losses.

In fact, losses have already been registered at the Laos-Thailand border because of the Chinese dams upstream of the river. Despite these concerns, in addition to the Xiayaburi, the Don Sahong and Pak Beng dams that are already under construction, there are at least eight other mainstream dam projects. A study carried out by the Danish Water consultancy, DHI, on the likely impact of these dams, has drawn alarming conclusions. In Vietnam, situated downstream along the river, annual fishery and farming losses could cumulate to more than $750 million, while the incomes accruing to fishing and farming villages could be halved. These findings raise the question as to whether the benefits that are expected from the dams really outweigh their overall costs. When considering this question of costs versus benefits, a major problem stems from the transborder aspect of the Mekong’s course. The consequences of the dams built in China might be offset by the benefits it will gain from the dams, but this may not  be the case for the countries downstream. The management of the river hence becomes a regional matter, and renders cooperation between the riparian countries crucial and urgent for the region’s stability.

In the wake of decolonization, the acknowledgement of the unexploited hydropower potential of the Mekong has resulted in the creation of what is known today as the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The MRC is constituted  of the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin, namely Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The MRC was supported by both the UN and the US in the geopolitically tensed context of the Cold War. It was only after the end of the latter that Myanmar (Burma) and China eventually joined the MRC, but only as observers. Yet, as the end of the Cold War marked the beginning of increasing regionalisation in Southeast Asia, cooperation over the management of the Mekong’s flows appears to be increasingly challenging in current times. In the post Cold-War era, mainstream dam projects, that entail important environmental costs , have been shelved or even cancelled in the lower part of the Mekong. However, since 2012, these projects have been put back on the agenda, with Laos being the first MRC country to build a mainstream dam on the river. China, acting unilaterally, had already done so on it’s part of the river. Beijing’s behaviour and growing influence in the region appears to have emboldened Vientiane, becoming less dependent on Vietnam, which would be the most impacted by the building of mainstream dams. Last year’s events seem to indicate that Laos is continuing to adopt an increasingly unilateral approach to the region, while Vietnam’s vulnerability from its exposure to the consequences of the proliferation of dams became non-questionable. Laos had effectively decided to go ahead with the project of the mainstream Don Sahong dam, despite the concerns expressed by both NGOs and MRC countries, which had asked Vientiane to wait for more studies on the impact of the dams to be conducted. Meanwhile, the combination of El Niño and the dams left Vietnam with a severe drought, and Hanoi eventually made a formal request to Beijing, who has built no less than six dam on its part of the river, to increase the water flow.

Though Beijing eventually released water, it shows that Chinese dams have granted Beijing a “chokehold” on the flow of the river, increasing de facto, it’s power over the riparian parties. Furthermore, China is strengthening its influence over the management of the Mekong through its initiation of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC). Although presented as an initiative for improved multilateral management of the Mekong River, Beijing could have joined the already existing MRC and worked towards its improvement.

The LMC can be beneficial for riparian cooperation. Yet, it remains more  likely to support cooperation policies favouring Beijing’s interests, while risking to neglect those of Cambodia and Vietnam. China’s determination to exploit the hydropower potential of the Mekong is unlikely to decline in the near future. As such the likelihood that Beijing will try to accommodate Cambodia and Vietnam is low . Beijing is effectively facing a constantly growing need for energy, and hydropower appears ideal in light of China’s air pollution problems.

In addition to China’s expanding influence in the region, the role played by private actors is another source of potential concern, and has to be taken into account when considering cooperation over the management of the Mekong’s waters. Most hydropower projects are financed by private banks and companies, from both foreign and host countries. For instance, the Xayabury dam in Laos is entirely privately financed, mainly by Thai banks, while the energy that it will produce will mostly be exported to Thailand. The private sector’s interests, both those who finance the dams and those looking to buy the energy produced, along with the influence they can yield on their home government, further complicate the above-mentioned concerns. It also has to be noted that private actors are not bound by multilateral agreement between states, but only subject to the national laws of the host country. As a consequence, their activities can only be constrained by the national laws of the country in which they operate. Consequently, improved cooperation on the Mekong’s management would be more efficient if multilateral agreements on infrastructural building were transferred into national laws. Unfortunately, it is unlikely that China or Laos would consent to such binding solution. Similarly, a process by which the construction of mainstream dams would require the approval of all the MRC or LMC members, appears illusionary.


There is a growing urgency for Mekong countries to have better cooperation in the management of the Mekong River. Considering the importance of what is at stake, with food security (particularly in Vietnam and Cambodia) on one end, and development and energy needs (especially in China and Laos) on the other, these conflicting tensions could rapidly turn into a regional crisis. At the moment evolving power configuration in the region appears to be playing in favour of unilateral action from the upstream countries. Undoubtedly, China is the biggest player in the game, and thus, future and stability of the Mekong countries seem to be, in large part, in Beijing’s hands.



Photo Credits:
Map of the Mekong: Shannon1, “Map showing the Mekong River and tributaries,” Creative Commons, Some Rights Reserved. Find the original here.
Waterfall from the Mekong: Clémence Le Liepvre, “The Mekong River, Luang Prabang, Laos,” All rights reserved.


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