The Mekong River. The backbone, the structural and economic lifeline of Indochina. This mystic river snakes through six countries, providing economic livelihoods to over 73 million people, sustaining local and national economies. As pictured by the map, the source of the river trickles from the Tibet Plateau, winding through mountains and hills to form farming rich regions before emptying into the Mekong Delta. However, the Mekong is a prime example of one of the greatest hurdles facing large scale environmental sustainability. Before the problem can be elaborated on further, the concept of externalities, the greatest issue facing the region, must be explained.
An externality, at a basic level, is any action done by a party or entity that has consequences on another party that held no direct relation to the action. A simplified example of an externality is when a person smokes in a crowded room. The action is smoking, and the party suffering the consequences are the individuals in the room. Situations like these play out all around the world, but they have a particular focus in environmental sustainability, as the actions of one group or nation often have lasting implications on that of other political bodies.
Before discussing the exact problems nations of the Mekong are plaguing each other with, it is important to note that the region has a long history of overarching regulation. Following two successive intergovernmental organizations, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) “was founded in 1995 to coordinate water resources planning and development across Southeast Asia’s lower Mekong River Basin,” (Jacobs 354). While organizations like the MCR and its predecessors are viewed as saviors of the Mekong, it is crucial to pinpoint that these administrations have been backed, sponsored, and funded by various development actors such as the United States, International Monetary Fund, and other regional stakeholders. More importantly, the goals of these organizations fluctuate widely, often enforcing the will of the institution providing financial support, typically placing economics over environmental security and local livelihoods. In the end, the MRC is nearly powerless in comparison to governmental administrations like Thailand or China, restricting the effective positive work it can do in the region.
As a whole, the biggest externality issue facing the region is the construction of dams upstream in order to create hydrological power. China in particular, has planned “at least 17 dams on the Lancang’s mainstream, though the most controversial project is the seven-dam Lancang cascade,” (Yeophantang). A general consensus exists that construction of dams upstream have permanent and lasting consequences on the nations composing the Lower Mekong Basin, including reduction of arable land and ecosystem failures. As if the ecological and local effect to livelihoods is not enough, the construction of dams also places power in the hands of players like China, who are capable of directing how much or little water nations and citizens receive, creating a political hegemony.
Not only are externality issues arising between powerhouses like China and the other Mekong nations, but also between nations in the lower basin themselves. In fact, Thailand has begun pumping Mekong River water into its own waterways, “[diverting] small volumes [of water, with] Vietnam [saying] it had recorded the lowest levels of the Mekong River since 1926,” (Cochrane). The power grab to seize control of the Mekong is one that holds not only hydrological power, but a ploy to maintain dominance over other nations. Conversely, due to a recent drought spell in the basin, China decided to release water from its dams, flooding the region, effectively demonstrating how these dams place too much ecological and political power in the hands of nations like China. Moreover, as one individual states discrediting what many describe as “goodwill” from the Chinese, storing water is already against the “natural flow” of the river, citing this as only creating more problems to come (Bopha).
While the problem highlighted does deal specifically with the ecological damage of dams and water diversion, the main concept I am displaying is a worldwide environmental issue of externalities. This concept is a common thread throughout development and one that is not often discussed, purely because few consider it. Too often, policies are focused on the “big picture,” whether that is economic prosperity, a development goal set by an institution, or just large scale infrastructure projects, as in the case of China with its dams. These actors are often “paying little attention to social considerations including local communities’ perspectives and concerns,” (Duong). Although, development is meant for growth of these local communities and livelihoods, often policies implemented by governments and institutions end up supplying economic growth as planned, but the growth does not extend to those that need it or often these local communities are harmed in addition to regional environmental degradation. An interesting question to pose, and one that warrants debate, is how can economic growth continue in areas like Indochina, while promoting sustainable development to local ecological systems and people? Is this feasible, or will externalities always be present and one group deemed to suffer while the other thrives in what developers term the development paradox?
Bopha, Phorn. “Cambodian Thanks, Caution, as China Opens Mekong Dam.” Voice of America. Voice of America, 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Cochrane, Liam. “Mekong River Diverted into Thailand’s Waterways, Worrying Drought-stricken Neighbours like Vietnam.” ABC News. ABC News, 17 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Duong, Hoang. “Vietnam’s Mekong Delta Study Misses Key Impacts from Upstream Dams.” Thanh Nien Daily. Thanh Nien News, 19 Mar. 2016. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Jacobs, Jeffrey W. “The Mekong River Commission: Transboundary Water Resources Planning and Regional Security.” The Geographical Journal Geographical 168.4 (2002): 354-64. JSTOR. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
“Mekong River Basin.” Great Rivers Partnership. The Nature Conservancy. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.
Yeophantong, Pichamon. “China in the Mekong: Building Dams for Whose Benefit?” Global Economic Governance Programme. University of Oxford, 1 Sept. 2013. Web. 24 Mar. 2016.