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By Joshua Lipes
China should join an intergovernmental commission supervising development of the Mekong River to more effectively address environmental and other problems faced by downstream Southeast Asian nations, a senior U.S. government official says.
Aaron Salzberg, special coordinator for water issues at the U.S. State Department, also underlined the importance of political will in ensuring that the Mekong River Commission (MRC) functions as an effective forum in coordinating shared use of the region’s main waterway.
“In the long run, I think it would be good for China to become a full active member in the MRC … sharing data so that the downstream countries actually understand what’s going to happen and when it’s going to happen and they can prepare accordingly for those types of things,” Salzberg told RFA.
“China can play an active role in managing their infrastructure for downstream benefits,” he said.
Five dams commissioned in China on the Mekong river’s upper portion have caused rapid changes in water levels and other adverse effects downstream, especially in the four countries of the Lower Mekong Basin—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos—where tens of millions of people depend on the river for food, water, and transportation, environmentalists say.
China has refused to join the MRC—which comprises the four lower Mekong nations and manages development along the Mekong—although the river’s source is located within the Asian giant’s borders, saying it prefers to negotiate on a bilateral basis to resolve any problems on the issue.
Salzberg said that Beijing should join the MRC and provide greater transparency on how its management of the resource might affect its neighbors.
“[H]ow you manage those systems and those dams—how you release water, when do you release the water –if that’s coordinated with the downstream countries, the benefits could be much greater than if it was done absent of knowing what the downstream countries were doing.”
Salzberg said that China’s management of the Mekong headwaters also affects the critical flow of sediment along the river.
“Without that dirt, the delta down at the far end [in Vietnam] doesn’t get replenished and the farmlands don’t get replenished, the nutrients are lost for the fish populations, and you can imagine with climate change happening the subsidence of the delta is greatly enhanced,” he said.
“So how you manage that and trap that sediment flow is critically important … The development upstream in China could have a profound impact on the sediment flows downstream, in addition to the water flows, so we’d love to see them become an active member in this process.”
China has built dozens of hydropower dams across its rivers, many of which—like the Mekong River—run from sources on the Tibetan plateau to Asian neighbors downstream.
Yet, the world’s most populous nation does not have a single water-sharing treaty in place with any of its neighboring countries, and experts say Beijing has refused to be tied up by a regional regulatory framework because it fears it will lose its strategic grip on transboundary river flows.
China has often been criticized by environmental groups for building massive dams without considering the interests of its downstream neighbors, which is then replicated in areas like the Mekong River basin, where Laos is proceeding with a megadam upstream from Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The MRC ruled last year that the Xayaburi dam required further study, but the body’s recommendations are nonbinding and Laos has decided to proceed with the project.
Salzberg acknowledged that it is a challenge to convince upstream countries to join regional bodies that might regulate their usage of regional water sources.
“From their perspective, why should they be making sacrifices for the benefit of the downstream countries?” he asked.
“And, unless there are really strong economic ties between those countries or broader geopolitical context that suggests a strong relationship between these countries, it’s often very, very difficult to do that … The incentives can be very modest.”
But he stressed that China should view itself as part of the greater region.
“It’s always hard when you are trying to balance your country’s national interests either for energy or for food or for anything else … with the interests of [your] neighbors. These are always real challenges and tensions that we have to manage everywhere,” he said.
“I think it’s a healthy thing to have disagreement and to have conflict. That is often what drives innovation and can drive cooperation … As a lot of these issues are coming to the forefront—and some of them are contentious—that is going to drive a new spirit of cooperation within the region.”
Salzberg said that even regional bodies like the MRC, the rulings of which are nonbinding to its members, can be effective channels of cooperation, provided participants have “the political will” to work together.
“[I]f the countries are committed to making that structure work—really using it as a platform to develop the best science, house the best data, put forward recommendations on how the basin can be developed and managed for the benefit of all the people—then I think it really can become an institution that helps drive decision making and cooperation within the basin,” he said.
“If the countries aren’t interested and the political will isn’t there, then … I’m not sure that the institution will ever realize its full potential.”
He said that the MRC has compiled a wealth of resources and experience that should be used for the benefit of not only the countries, but also the people of the Mekong basin.
“How we make that work … the countries are really going to have to have political commitment to doing that.”
He cautioned that outside observers must remain sensitive to the idea that political discourse between countries in Southeast Asia is “fundamentally different” from what nations might have in other regions of the world.
“Different groups work in different ways,” he said.
“Maybe we haven’t found the sweet spot yet for what the right arrangement is that allows this region to address these kinds of challenges.”
Salzberg also warned that limited data about the Mekong would affect plans to develop the region.
“[P]robably the scariest part of all this is that we’re entering into this development phase without really knowing what the baseline river system is,” he said.
“I don’t think we understand enough about how the basin works right now to do some of these projects in a manner that [the global community] would feel comfortable with,” he added, referring to plans countries have decided to push ahead on without adequately addressing the concerns of all stakeholders.
Among those concerns are issues with how changes in river flows associated with such huge projects might affect fish spawning, silt flow, food security, and even cultural traditions.
Other indirect challenges include how climate change may affect the Mekong’s water flow and whether one country might regulate the flow of water into another country to achieve political goals, he said.
“I think the greatest challenge we have right now is just understanding the basin—what lives in there, how it works, and how is it that we can develop it in a way that protects those things that we think are important,” Salzberg said.
“And I think that’s the real issue—to be smart, to think about what we’re doing before we do it, make decisions deliberately and with full stakeholder engagement, and hopefully … we end up with something that provides benefits for 100 to 150 years, in that it doesn’t start creating problems after year 30.”