Transboundary Water Issues of the Mekong Delta – Analysis

By Thong Anh Tran*

The Mekong River is the lifeblood of countries in the Mekong region, but recent years have seen recurrently decreasing water flows and accelerating saltwater intrusion processes in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. . These transboundary hydrological challenges adversely affect 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 researchers argue that these transformations cannot be attributed solely to climate change – and that a significant part of the explanation lies in the operation of large-scale hydroelectric dams in the upper reaches of the river.

With a gatekeeper role in the delta, some say China is withholding a significant amount of water for the sake of its own development, with repercussions and costs for downstream users. The 1995 Mekong Agreement gives China the statutory authority and mechanisms to retain water for its own “reasonable and equitable use”, although this definition is nuanced and complicated, as noted by the Water Commission. Mekong. Downstream countries, notably Laos, are also contributing to the problem by continuing to build a wide range of dams, both in the tributaries and in the main stream.

The ongoing debate about the mediating role of Chinese dams in regulating downstream water flows continues. Many are expressing doubts about the role that the Mekong River Commission plays in monitoring hydrological regimes across the entire geographical extent of the Mekong, apart from the well-functioning knowledge center it provides to the Mekong countries.

The fragmentation of the Mekong due to the construction of large-scale hydroelectric dams illustrates the inability of downstream states to shape the definition of “reasonable and equitable” use into one focused on regional objectives, rather than centered on interests. nationals.

But there have been some successes. Most notably, the moratorium on the construction of two major hydropower projects – Sambor and Stung Treng – by the Cambodian government is a positive sign that downstream countries recognize and respond to the negative cross-border implications. That said, the decision can only be short-term, as this is a national commitment with narrow jurisdictional limits. The complexity of transboundary water implications cannot be meaningfully addressed by piecemeal national actions.

There are questions about whether Vietnam is able to cope with the complexity of transboundary water challenges faced by agrarian communities in the delta. Hydroelectric dams in the central highlands of Vietnam are having a devastating impact on downstream areas. This puts Vietnam in a difficult position given the involvement of Vietnamese companies in the construction of the main hydroelectric dam in Luang Prabang and other dams in Laos. Whatever the logic of this investment in the Luang Prabang project, benefiting from upstream developments calls into question any arguments that Vietnam could make about the negative consequences downstream in the delta.

There is much uncertainty about longer-term changes in the hydrological regime of the Mekong. But significant out-migration from the delta is already occurring, with the rural poor abandoning the delta in search of employment in urban areas. However, how national governments will respond to the effects of climate change is unclear. Will Cambodia, for example, decide to reactivate its dam construction projects? If so, processes that are already underway in the delta would accelerate, with significant implications for the delta population.

Transboundary hydrological transformations present unprecedented risks for the delta. At the local level, a mixture of control and adaptation measures have been undertaken to deal with externalities. But these local efforts are insufficient as a long-term solution to emerging challenges. On the contrary, it requires the strong determination of the Vietnamese government to push forward an agenda that will establish a Mekong-wide platform for dialogue to diagnose and resolve the challenges of transboundary water management. Meaningful cooperation to improve the hydrological conditions of the Mekong should also be facilitated and the benefits shared between upstream and downstream countries.

Regionally, it is time for Mekong riparian countries and the Mekong Commission to look beyond their usual practices. Instead of relying solely on hydropower projects that have caused detrimental cross-border consequences, alternative energy solutions must be strengthened. There is great potential for investment in solar and wind projects, especially on the Vietnamese coast. But as these energy development pathways progress, the lives of millions of Mekong residents hang on the uncertainty characterized by the sporadic benevolence of upstream countries as well as their strong political will to increasingly compress flows. of the Mekong.

*About the author: Thong Anh Tran is an Honorary Lecturer at the Fenner School of Environment and Society, College of Science, The Australian National University, and a Research Fellow at Vietnam Fulbright University.

Source: This work is published by East Asia Forum and is part of the “Sustainable Governance of Transboundary Environmental Commons in Southeast Asia” project, funded by the Social Science Research Council of the Singapore Ministry of Education.

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