Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Overlooks the Real Key to Peace and Prosperity: Mekong People

When I first heard the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC) last year, the name of the river stood out. I initially thought it was only a mechanism for water management among the six countries that share the longest, mighty river in Southeast Asia. I was not completely wrong, but water management is only a tiny bit of the whole deal.

At the public forum “The Lancang-Mekong Cooperation: Challenges, Opportunities and Ways Forward” organized on April 28 by the Institute of Security and International Studies (ISIS), Mr Yang Yi, secretary general of the Chinese Institute of International Studies repeatedly asserts that the LMC is a mechanism to enhance the idea of “Shared River, Shared Future” among the six Mekong countries. It entails a platform to seek peace and prosperity via three cooperation pillars —political and security; economic and sustainable development; and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. It is no accident that these three pillars coincide with ASEAN three pillars of the same name because the LMC aims to pave way for China to strengthen its political and economic influence in ASEAN.

Water resource ranks among the top five priorities of the LMC. Of the 26 measures specified in the declaration to outline the activities of connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction, only one is dedicated directly to water resources management. It lists the establishment of centers for technical exchanges, capacity building, data and information sharing, and joint research projects . The majority of the measures, however, focus on various investment and trade opportunities such as the Belt and Road Initiative, ASEAN+3 partnerships, financial assistance for infrastructure development which opens the door for China to invest in the region.

Other panelists, Cambodian Ambassador Pou Sothirak and Professor Dao Trong Tu, criticized China’s previous lack of engagement in the Mekong River Commission, an organization is set up to promote sustainable development and water management among Mekong countries. Nonetheless, they agreed that the LMC could lead to more discussion potentially on a water treaty, which clearly delegates how the shared international river could be managed—something MRC has failed to do.

But I don’t think it is going to be that simple when China never admits that its upstream projects have destroyed the ecological harmony of the Mekong River.

In the middle of the dry season, between January and February 2016, the Chiang Khong riverbank community, located in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province, 200 kilometers downstream of Jinghong Dam, suffered from the abrupt rise of the Mekong River. This is the time when local villagers tend river gardens and reap dry season harvests due to the robust sediment deposited along the river bank during the monsoon season. But this year, the fluctuating water level caused locals to shake their heads when their source of food and income submerged under water.

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Further down in Loei, a fishery network lamented for the decreasing catches and damaged fishing equipment due to the “Water Tsunami.” In Bung Karn Province, 200 kilometers downstream from Loei, the Mekong level rose 2 meters and flooded locals’ riverbank gardens. Some gardeners had to pick up remaining scallions and corns.

In March 2016, the Mekong River at Nakhon Phanom, Thailand rose rapidly again and showing no sign of subsiding. It was officially the beginning of summertime and a month away from Songkran, Thailand’s traditional new year and the most important family gathering occasion in the country. Religious sites that usually submerged under Mekong River in rainy season would appear for Thais and Laotians as well as tourists to revere for the annual special occasion. Locals usually set up restaurants and leisure rest spots for tourists on the riverine sand bars in the middle of the Mekong River. But this year, sand bars were inundated; religious sites remained underwater. Less tourists showed up.

On April 13, 2016, the first day of Songkran, the water still remained high. Subsequently, district chief of Woen Phra Baht in Nakhon Phanom cancelled the annual Buddha footprint ceremony, an ancient religious ceremony that attracts local Thais and Laotians for centuries. The new year became a quiet time by the Mekong River. Restaurant owners indicated that they usually earn between 500,000 to 1,000,000 baht (15,000-30000 USD) during the December to April dry season (December-April), but that income had been unstable and decreasing over the past several years due to fluctuating Mekong flow.

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The Mekong River first meets Thai border at a river town called Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province. Here, the Mekong River Commission set up a hydrological station as part of its effort to contribute data for better-practice water management among the four downstream Mekong countries, namely Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Chiang Saen Hydrological Station shows the water flow rate between March and April in 2016 remained high around 2,000 cubic meters per second and dropped to 1,000 cubic meters per second within a couple of days. After a week, the graph climbed up to near 1,500 cubic meters per second. What happened?

On March 16, Xinhua reported that China would release water from its dam following Vietnam’s request. Ministry spokesman Lu Kang stated 2,000 cubic meter of water will be discharged from the dam every second between March 15 to April 10. In response, Pham Binh Minh , Vietnamese deputy prime minister at the time, congratulated the positive move to alleviate drought. Thailand’s coup leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-o-cha  cheered happily for China’s considerate move. Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen  joined the acclaim. Laos took a step forward and announced that it too would discharge water to help relief devastating condition downstream.

Looking back at the hydrological data, the Mekong flow rate has been fluctuating for the past few years when, naturally, the volume ought to be decreasing in dry season. Comparing the flow rate between 2014, 2015 and 2016, the number remain around 2,000 cubic meters between March and April for second for all three years. Simply said, China’s altruistic move is actually turning into an annual practice. But locals are not aware of this change unless China announces its plan and notify Mekong downstream authorities to spread the news. Nonetheless, by the time the notification reaches riparian communities, the fish are already gone and the riverbank gardens are already submerged.

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The Lancang River contributes nearly 70 percent of total Mekong catchment area at Chiang Saen in wet season. The number jumps closer to 100 percent in dry season. For this reason, downstream communities will feel any changes happening upstream. It also means that China is in control of how the river flows.

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As of 2016, China has already built at least six mega-dams on the Lancang with a total capacity over 15,000 megawatts. The closest dam to lower Mekong countries is the Jinghong dam located in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan less 100km from China’s border with Laos and Myanmar.  This dam is often mentioned in China’s media release on water discharge. The Jinghong dam is China’s water gate, thus China has complete control over when it shall open or close.

Downstream riparian communities have been asking China for prior notification on dry season  discharge from Lancang dams and to share hydrological information for many years already. Nonetheless, China never taken full responsibility.

“It becomes politics when China announces its discharge,” said Montree Chantawong, a researcher who has been monitoring the Mekong flow for more than a decade now. He illustrates the water flow graph to show that China’s dam discharge is nothing new. The higher volume aims to facilitate Chinese large cargo ships during the dry season. The discharge also helps to generate electricity and make way for new water in the reservoir during the rainy season. What’s new is China’s approach to talk about Mekong water management through the LMC mechanism.

China’s altruistic move came before the release of Sanya Declaration at the first LMC summit on Hainan Island on March 23-24 . The two-day meeting marks the official beginning of cooperation among Mekong countries. However, Kavi Chongkittavorn, senior fellow at ISIS and one of the panelists at the LMC public forum, left the audience with a note to think about China’s spatial location and subsequent posture towards Mekong downstream countries. “If China sees its neighbors as the front yard, it would treat its neighbor with respect. If it sees it as its backyard, then the treatment would be different.”

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On the same day that leaders gathered in Sanya, the Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces released a statement to the same leaders. The call was simple: admit the transboundary impacts caused by development projects, mainly dams and rapids blasting. The impacts of Chinese dam discharge on Mekong downstream ecosystems and livelihoods were immense in the beginning of 2016—a clear example of transboundary impacts of dams.

The network further emphasized the need for respect and involvement of Mekong grassroots communities . As many riparian communities still depend deeply on Mekong fluvial ecosystems to sustain their livelihoods and nourish their cultures, the Mekong governments ought to take this into account when they design development plans for their countries. To ensure that the needs of the people are met, it is crucial for all Mekong governments to recognize the importance of grassroots riparian communities and respect their indigenous knowledge for the river they depend on for their livelihoods, cultures and economy. A democratic process is more than ever necessary to leverage the voice from the ground to be heard at the international geopolitical platform especially in the region where grassroots participation increasingly become restricted while dictatorship flourishes in the region. In addition, the statement calls Mekong governments to take responsibility to provide mitigation for damages and losses caused by dams and navigation projects. An accountable and participatory water management mechanism must be assured and enforced to prevent further negative environmental and social impacts on downstream communities, rather than transforming a mother river to a dead river.

While the leaders smile and hold hands tight for an unprecedented moment in history that could lead to sustainable water governance in the Mekong Region, grassroots riparian communities suffer from unnatural flow of the Mekong River. The applause for China’s move towards regional peace and prosperity will only be a façade if the Mekong leaders never take a moment to seriously promote public participation. It will only set up the beginning of a countdown to water conflicts.

Four numbers of the Sanya Declarations: 6, 3, 5 and 26.

  • 6 indicates the six member countries in the Mekong Region.
  • 3 points at the three cooperation pillars: political and security, economic and sustainable development and social, cultural and people-to-people exchanges. The three pillars coincides with ASEAN’s three cooperation pillars. This is no accident. The Sanya Declaration paves way for China to strengthen its political and economic partnership with ASEAN.
  • 5 is the key priorities during the initial stage, namely connectivity, production capacity, cross-border economic cooperation, water resources and agriculture and poverty reduction. Simply put, these are the main programs China hopes to implement and enhance its domination over other members.
  • 26 means the twenty-six measures detailing the five key priorities. Most of them map out how to place downstream countries in China’s “go global” economic policies like the Belt and Road Initiative and affirms its influences in ASEAN+3 partnership.

 

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Filed under ASEAN, China, development, FEATURES, Lancang Mekong Cooperation, Mekong River, Regional Relations, SLIDER, water release, Yunnan Province

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