OPINION: Mekong Drought Reveals Need for Regional Rules-based Water Cooperation

by Carl Middleton

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

The severe drought currently faced by farmers and fishers in the Mekong basin is a disaster that reveals many things. It reveals the extent to which large dams now increasingly control river water levels. It reveals too the limits to cooperation between the countries sharing precious water in times of scarcity. And, it reveals the likelihood of an increasingly uncertain future under the conditions of climate change. What must be done in the short and long term?

It is – in theory – now almost the middle of the rainy season. Usually at this time the Mekong River is beginning to swell with the rain waters of the Southwest monsoon. Yet, this year water levels are as if it were a drought in the dry season. This has seriously affected farmers, with their planted rice and other crops withering in parched soil. It has also impacted fishers dependent on the river’s ecology.

In mid-July, the intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) stated that the river’s water levels are among the lowest on record for June and July. They explain that there has been a shortage of rainfall across the basin since January. The MRC also highlight that dam operation on the upper Mekong River in China, where it is known as the Lancang River, could have an impact. China sent a notification to the MRC indicating that between 5 to 19 July the water released from the lower of its eleven large dams, called Jinghong, would “fluctuate” due to “grid maintenance.”

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

This has had a two-fold impact. First, it withheld water at a time when downstream countries would have most benefited from more water being released. Second, sending unnatural pulses of water down the river harms river ecology and livelihoods dependent upon it, including riverbank gardens, river weed collection, and fishing, although this has in fact occurred since the late 1990s.

Alongside China’s dams, civil society groups have questioned the role of the Xayaburi dam in Northern Laos, which is scheduled to be commissioned in October this year. Since mid-July, the project had been testing its turbines, causing river fluctuations downstream. The company has denied that they have played a role in the drought, and ironically have even lamented that they were also affected by the withholding of water by China. However, Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources sent a letter to the Government of Laos requesting the testing be temporarily halted.

Less attention has been paid to the possible role of tributary hydropower dams, in particular in Laos that is progressively fulfilling its government’s vision to become the ‘battery of Southeast Asia.’ Over sixty medium and large-scale dams have been built to date. The question here is whether these tributary projects have also been withholding water to replenish their reservoirs to sell electricity. As with all of the hydropower dams in the Lancang-Mekong basin, little real-time data is in the public domain about reservoir water levels.

What are the lessons learned and what is to be done? Most immediately, support needs to be provided to rural communities both to distribute water to the extent that it is available and provide other means of support including, where necessary, financial support. Once the rains do arrive, as is anticipated any day now, hydropower project operators should resist the temptation to immediately begin replenishing their reservoirs for power generation. Rather, the priority should be with distributing water to farmers and recovering the river’s ecology for fishers and wildlife.

In the longer term, if it is true that there is little water in hydropower dam reservoirs, this also reveals the fallacy of depending too much on such infrastructure-led solutions towards managing drought. Rather, it indicates that other forms of preparedness will be necessary including better predictive capacity for droughts before they occur, and well-resourced plans once they do occur at the local, national and transboundary level. It should also include rethinking water storage to consider more groundwater and small-scale solutions, rather than focusing only on large dams.

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Photo Credit: The Network of Thai People in Eight Mekong Provinces

Given that the Mekong River is shared between six countries, it is clear that even deeper inter-governmental cooperation is needed. Since the last severe drought in 2016, much has been said about the new regional cooperation under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) between China and downstream countries, including how it should cooperate with the MRC. In March 2016, shortly before the region’s leaders committed to the LMC, China released water from the Lancang dams as a show of goodwill in an effort to alleviate the severe drought at that time, although unfortunately the water releases caught some downstream communities unaware.

Building on the collaboration between the MRC and LMC, rather than depend upon informal arrangements for sharing water between China and downstream countries, it would be better to move towards a clearer rules-based approach. The scope of cooperation, some of which has already started, should include: more comprehensive data sharing between governments and with the public; collaborative research; clear rules and procedures on emergency water release; hydropower cascade operation that mimics, to the extent possible, the natural river flow; and improved procedures for genuine public participation, especially for riverside communities.

In the face of worsening climate change, and recognizing that it is often the most vulnerable who face the greatest risk during times of drought, these short and long-term solutions are needed now more than ever.

For the article published in Thai, please visit this link.

Carl Middleton is Director of the Center of Excellence in Resource Politics for Social Development at the Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science, Chulalongkorn University. He can be contacted at Carl.Chulalongkorn@gmail.com.