Experts doubt effectiveness of new plan to address Mekong drought

Plan centres on drought forecasting but critics say it failed to address impact of dams and hydropower projects.

Mekong River
The once-mighty Mekong River has been reduced to a thin, grubby neck of water across northern Thailand [Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – After a year of severe drought that hit the region, the inter-state agency Mekong River Commission (MRC) has laid out new measures to mitigate the effects of the crisis but experts have questioned the effectiveness of the plan.

In its 2020-2025 strategy, adopted late last month in Phnom Penh and published last week, the MRC sets out a five-point strategy, which includes drought forecasting and early warning.

The MRC works with the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, and is an advisory body set up to manage shared water resources of the Mekong River.

The Mekong is the world’s 12th longest river, stretching 4,350km (2,703 miles) from China in the north to Vietnam in the south.

The plan, contained in an 88-page document, aims “to strengthen adaptive capacity of the Member Countries in combatting drought hazards and mitigating drought impacts through a sustainable use of water resources.”

Cambodia Mekong
The Mekong provides water and livelihoods for millions of people on its journey from China to the South China Sea. [Al Jazeera]

But Pianporn Deetes, a campaigner in Thailand for International Rivers, said that while the plan acknowledges some important points, such as how the drought affects the lives of millions of people, the strategy itself is focused on the wrong issues.

“The strategy they are using misses the point,” she said.

One of the main issues affecting water scarcity is the impact of hydropower projects, which was barely mentioned in the report, Pianporn said.

“Instead of recognising the existing problems, governments are allowing more and more dams to be built,” Pianporn said.

Disruption to the environment

Ian Baird, a University of Wisconsin researcher who studies the Mekong, said the new strategy is not far-reaching enough.

While praising the MRC’s effort to collect more data, Baird said that alone is not sufficient.

“The data is only going to be worth as much as people are willing to make use of it to make decisions, and that will depend on the governments.”

Dams built along the Mekong have disrupted the natural water flow of the river, and that poses risks to the whole ecological system, Baird said.

Mekong River
Vietnam is suffering its worst drought in nearly a century, salinisation hitting farmers hard in the southern Mekong Delta, experts said [Stringer/AFP]

One of the consequences of the disruption is that trees are dying in Cambodia, because of excess water released from the dam at a time when the trees need less water.

The way the MRC is structured, with only government representatives and no one from civil society, its drought strategy could only go so far, Baird added.

“The countries are very much about maintaining national interest. And I don’t think there’s enough of a sense of long term benefit of everyone,” he said.

“Everyone has projects that they want to build, everyone wants to have their own dam, and they want to have their own diversion projects. So there’s not much coordination.”

‘Mekong is not a tap’

Under the new plan, the MRC stresses the need for collaboration with “dialogue partners” in the region.

“It is extremely important for the MRC to enhance cooperation with China and Myanmar,” the document reads.

As part of the effort to improve cooperation with China, the MRC signed an agreement with the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center to manage the water resources. Lancang is the Chinese name for the Mekong.

In a press release, An Pich Hatda, the MRC Secretariat’s Chief Executive Officer, said the deal is aimed at ensuring “effective upper and lower Mekong river basin management for future sustainability and shared benefits”.

A Cambodian woman carries a basket of fish at the Mekong River bank in Phnom Penh. Mekong is the lifeline of millions of people living along its riverbank from China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia [File: Mak Remissa/EPA]

But Pianporn of International Rivers said the MRC countries were not leveraging enough their collective influence with China.

Merely advocating for the occasional release of water from the upstream Mekong would not be enough, she added.

“The Mekong River is not a tap. It’s not a toilet. It’s not like you open it, that you turn on the water: it’s a whole fragile eco-system, an invaluable system that you need to protect.”

Pianporn added that the dams only “exacerbate the effects of climate change”.

“We are destroying the Mekong River to produce electricity that no one is actually using. Why is that,” Pianport asked, pointing out that Thailand’s electricity generation results in a 50-percent surplus that is exported.

“We need to restore the function of the river in order to mitigate the drought crisis in the Mekong River Basin.”

In a statement to Al Jazeera, the MRC Secretariat said: “It’s also important to note that tributary dams also play a vital role in helping to ease drought. In a drought time, tributary dams may release water from their reservoirs to the mainstream to feed in the water and mitigate the issue. But certain constrains on power production by power purchase agreements will need to be discussed.”

Source: Al Jazeera