Monday May 2, 2022

Eurasia Review

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of countries in the Mekong region, but the past few years have seen water flows recurringly decline and processes of saltwater intrusion accelerating in the Vietnamese Mekong delta. These transboundary hydrological challenges have detrimental effects on millions of people living in the delta, whose livelihoods depend on the Mekong.

Climate change has played a role through the effects of reduced rainfall, rising temperatures, and extreme weather events. But many scholars argue that these transformations cannot solely be attributed to climate change — and that an important part of the explanation lies in the operation of large-scale hydropower dams in the upper stretches of the river.

With a controlling role in the delta, some argue that China holds back a significant amount of water for the sake of its own development, with knock-on implications and costs for downstream users. The Mekong Agreement of 1995 provides China with the statutory authority and mechanisms to retain water for its own ‘reasonable and equitable use’, though this definition is nuanced and complicated, as noted by the Mekong River Commission. Downstream countries, notably Laos, also contribute to the problem by pursuing the construction of a wide array of dams, both in tributaries and the mainstream.

Ongoing debate about the mediating role of Chinese dams in regulating downstream water flows continues. Many express their doubts about the role that the Mekong River Commission plays in monitoring the hydrological regimes across the geographical span of the Mekong River, aside from the well-functioning knowledge hub it provides for the Mekong countries.

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