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Lancang-Mekong: water governance and Chinese hegemony in the ‘Amazon’ of the East

Between April and June, in the Lancang-Mekong River Delta, 1.6 million hectares of rice fields are sowed by the Vietnamese people. This year, in spite of some preoccupations concerning droughts and saltwater intrusion in certain areas, the agricultural schedule is going to be respected, with help from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development.

This sort of problems will likely augment in proportions, together with a number of related issues, due to the construction of major hydroelectric dams along the river’s main channel and its tributaries. Such facilities have already caused significant socio-ecological changes, that are bound to continue in the decades to come.

The Lancang-Mekong region extends from Tibet, in China, to southern Vietnam and encompasses parts of Myanmar and Thailand, as well as most of the territories of Laos and Cambodia. The basin is also the world’s largest inland freshwater fishery, yielding 13 times more fish each year than all of North America’s rivers and lakes combined. About 60 million people along its course rely for the majority of their protein intake on fish, which they also trade for a living. Furthermore, the area is extremely rich in terms of biodiversity and, for this reason, is often compared to the South American Amazon.

Monsoons determine the river’s hydrology, as between June and November 80% of the river’s total discharge takes place, in a phenomenon dubbed ‘flood pulse’.

According to the development experts Carl Middleton and Jeremy Allouche, by 2008 the dam storage capacity of the total flow of the river was 2%, but with hundreds of project for major and lesser dams underway, the percentage might increase tenfold by 2030.

The delicate balance of  the dry and rainy seasons has for a long time been managed by minor interventions of land and hydro-engineering, like ditches and irrigation channels. The implementation of large hydropower facilities, though, aside from the grave impact on wild fisheries that need water-corridors for migration and spawning, will highly affect sediments deposition and transfer, and therefore the fertility of vast areas, as well as their ecosystem and human livelihoods.

While, in the past, the business has been propelled by international economic institution such as the World Bank and the IMF, together with Asian development banks, the main drivers of the dam-building effort today are investment-seeking national governments, trying to develop energetic potential, and Chinese financial institutions, aiming for profits and regional hegemony. Throughout the years, however, a number of different actors emerged from civil society along the Mekong in order to protest against new dams and to raise awareness about their negative impact. Among others, the manifestations against the Xayaburi Dam and the Pak Mun Dam have been prominent examples of mobilization and captured worldwide attention.

Some governments in the area provided an early endorsement for the concerns of academics, activists, and local communities with the formation, in 1995, of the intergovernmental body of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). Yet, Myanmar and, most importantly, China did not partake, and up to this day the two countries are classified as mere ‘Dialogue Partners’. This resulted in detrimental consequences with respect to the accountability and the bearing of the MRC.

So far, Chinese companies appeared to be more concerned with profiting off their investments, than coming to terms with civil society advocates. Those investments, however, born under the sign of ‘clean’ energy development, as opposed to fossil fuels, are today much more controversial, since, on the one hand, scholars and local communities keep dealing with their externalities and, on the other, China rapidly increases its economic and geopolitical influence worldwide, striving to attain a role of leadership.

It is in this context that Beijing launched, in 2015, a parallel initiative to the MRC, under the name Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC). Surrounded by a resurgence of initiatives by other geopolitical actors, China made a move to retain control over hydropower development in mainland South-East Asia. The LMC is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, an immense infrastructural dream of geostrategic and economic expansion, backed by the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and brought into the world through the diplomatic enterprise of Xi Jinping’s administration.

Countries once at odds with China’s assertiveness, such as Laos and Cambodia, are slowly turning sides, as they see a flood of investments from the neighbouring superpower.

In the first summit of the LMC, held on April 28, 2016 in the Chinese city of Sanya, under the title “Share the River, Share the Future”, the co-chair Chinese Premier Li Keqiang talked of nearly 100 ‘early harvest’ projects and offered ¥10 billion in concessional loans, $10 billion in credit line,  $300 million for regional cooperation, and $200 million for operations to reduce poverty.
This renewed Chinese interest has certainly earned Xi a privileged position with respect to his geopolitical adversaries in the region, the U.S. and Japan, while somehow captivating the ASEAN with promises to conclude negotiations on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. And yet, as of today, it is still unclear whether it will also turn out to be a step forward on the sides of consultations, sustainability, and multilateralism.