Cambodia Sleeps With the Fishes

Southeast Asian countries were teaming up against China -- now they're at each other's throats over water, dams, and fish.

Photo by Christophe Archambault - AFP - Getty
Photo by Christophe Archambault - AFP - Getty

Vietnam and other Southeast Asian countries are spooked these days by China’s aggressive behavior. But the real threat to Vietnam’s future may come from a different communist neighbor.

Ambitious plans for hydroelectric development in the region, especially by Laos, pose a real danger to the food supply of Vietnam and Cambodia. Upstream dams will imperil the fish stocks that provide the vast majority of Cambodia’s protein and could also denude the Mekong River of the silt Vietnam needs for its rice basket. Laos’s drive to become the "battery of Southeast Asia" is producing plenty of sparks, but not the right kind.

Diplomatic tension over the dams — as well as their effect on fisheries and agriculture in a river basin that is home to more than 60 million people — threatens to drive Southeast Asian countries apart right as they are trying to present a common face toward China’s increasingly brazen behavior in claiming parts of the South China Sea for itself.

"These things are really torquing regional relations," said Rich Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center. Although the dispute probably won’t lead to armed conflict, he said, "it sure could be the end of regional cooperation on a lot of issues."

The whole region is caught in a hydropower frenzy, thanks in part to China’s plans to build multiple big dams far upstream. Laos is building several of its own on the Mekong to generate electricity — for export. That includes the Don Sahong project, right near the Laos-Cambodia border, and the much bigger Xayaburi dam further upstream. The country of slightly more than 6 million people doesn’t need more power, but it does need hard currency.

In all, about a dozen proposed hydropower projects on the Mekong threaten fish and farming that feed millions while offering distant economic benefits for a lucky few, according to an environmental assessment carried out by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental agency. The study found that the dams would seriously threaten food security, increase poverty, and permanently damage the ecology.

Countries in the region, especially Vietnam and Cambodia, have tried to push back against Laos’s hydropower dreams. But a regional summit of the Mekong River Commission in April that gathered all the affected countries together could muster only a generic statement about sustainable development in the Mekong basin, rather than condemning Laos’s development outright.

They’ll get a fresh chance to iron out differences at another meeting this month. But Laos has made clear that it plans to go ahead with the projects over its neighbors’ complaints in spite of a 1995 accord meant precisely to avoid such unilateral power plays.

"It’s really now or never," given all the projects on the drawing board, Cronin said. "The issue is: Is there any way to get Laos to play ball?"

The dams aren’t just a cause for concern in Vietnam and Cambodia.

"No one country has a right to deprive another country of the livelihood and the ecosystem and its capacity for life itself that comes with that river," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said while visiting Vietnam in December.

For years Washington has encouraged greater cooperation among Southeast Asian countries, which China’s latest regional saber rattling makes more urgent.

This spring, China aggravated relations with many Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Japan, and the Philippines. China’s dispatching of a deepwater oil rig to waters claimed by Vietnam in early May sparked the most serious clash between those two countries in years. Vessels playing cat and mouse around the rig have clashed, plenty of Vietnamese ships have limped home with damage, and one Vietnamese fishing boat was sunk. Anti-China riots broke out in Vietnam, further souring relations between two countries that had steadily developed closer economic ties despite a bitter history.

China has also irked the Philippines by building infrastructure on a reef claimed by Manila and chasing away Filipino fishermen. Meanwhile, tensions between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea remain at a fever pitch. In all cases, Chinese diplomats angrily accuse other countries, including the United States, of provoking unrest throughout the region.

State Department officials urged Cambodia, Vietnam, and upstream countries to find a solution at that Mekong River Commission summit. But the water fights threaten to tear the region apart right when it most needs unity.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is in Myanmar this weekend for fresh talks, which will include discussing the Mekong’s future.

The disputes are a reminder that hydroelectric development, more than almost any other kind of electricity project, can poison international relations. Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the latter’s plans to build a massive dam on the headwaters of the Nile. Leading politicians in India warn that China’s hydroelectric development on the Brahmaputra River is an "act of aggression."

Just as Egypt is worried that the Ethiopian dam will choke the supplies of fresh water it needs for agriculture downstream, Vietnam is terrified that a series of upstream dams will spell the end of its rice production, which relies on the rich, fertile silt carried by the river. If all the proposed dams are built, silt loads downstream will drop 75 percent, according to the Mekong River Commission report.

Cambodia’s fears are even more acute. The rich fisheries of Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia, largely supply the impoverished country’s protein. But the lake is unusual: It all but disappears in the dry season and then expands massively as water flow from the Mekong backs up when the rains come.

"Those fish are so important for their livelihoods, both economically and nutritionally," said Gordon Holtgrieve, a professor at the University of Washington who researches Cambodia’s freshwater fish.

"And none of these dams are pointing at good outcomes for the fisheries."

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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