China’s Mekong Plans Threaten Disaster for Countries Downstream
Beijing is building hydroelectric dams and dredging to allow bigger boats as worries of environmental devastation grow.
Thailand has few options when it comes to dealing with China’s plans for the Mekong, mainly because it has no power to prevent China from doing what it wants where the river runs through its territory. But China has also been carrying out what Carl Middleton, the former Mekong program director at International Rivers, calls “hydrodiplomacy,” creating a new multinational organization of the Mekong countries. Since the 1950s, the main such group has been the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which, encouraged by organizations like the World Bank and largely supported by the United States and Japan, urged its members to explore hydropower as a key ingredient in their economic development. China was never a member of the MRC, which makes the new group it has formed, known as the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, the first organization to include all six Mekong countries. Its first meeting, held in China in March last year, was hailed by China’s press as a major new step in regional cooperation.
It is not clear exactly what the new mechanism will do, but it seems similar to other multilateral bodies created by China — like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — which allow Beijing far greater power to take initiatives and to set rules than it does in older, Western-dominated institutions and through which it can work to blunt the grassroots and environmental opposition that its ambitions often generate.
China, as Middleton puts it, considers Southeast Asia to be its backyard, a place where it should have paramount influence, and one way it uses that influence is to incorporate the Mekong into its larger development plan. This involves using hydroelectricity to feed the industries of its southeastern coast and to use the revenues to reduce poverty in Yunnan. Its neighbors’ concerns barely infringe on these plans — this is a country, after all, that was happy to displace millions of its own people to build the Three Gorges Dam.
Given China’s ambitions, organizations like the Chiang Khong Conservation Group and others like it clearly face an uphill struggle. China and the downriver governments both envision a future for the Mekong in which it will be primarily a source of energy, thus stripped of its other uses and possibilities.
“If the trend continues,” Deetes told me, showing me brochures and studies on the transformation of the Mekong that has taken place already, “I don’t think we can stop anything.”
Top photo credit: CHRISTOPHE ARCHAMBAULT/AFP/Getty Images
The reporting for this story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.