Geopolitical risks of Asia's trans-boundary rivers

February 21, 2012

Perhaps, what is more relevant in the geopolitical context, is China’s intention to dam rivers that flow for hundreds of kilometers through its lands before entering neighboring countries downstream, notably the Mekong and Salween,  as well as the Brahmaputra .

In line with its 12th Five Year Plan and a move to widen the contribution of non-fossil fuels to the nation’s vast power generating capacity, dam building appears firmly on China’s development agenda. Some analysts believe that the country will have installed about 348-GW of hydro-power capacity by 2020 a rise of 37 percent from 2011.

Take the Mekong as an example.  As  Asia‘s longest river, the Mekong starts life in the Tibetan Plateau as the Dza-chu, from here it  flows 500km through the Three Rivers Basin, running aside the Yangtze and Salween. It descends across Yunnan Province in China where it’s known as the Lancang, before continuing its descent, forming borders between Burma, Laos and Thailand.  Finally, the river enters the South China Sea after flowing across Cambodia and Vietnam respectively.

Mekong river basin, higlighting China's eight dam projects

The Mekong River basin - highlighting where China is buiding 8 dams. (Source: International Rivers, Updated December 2011)

China is already building eight dams along the Lancang section of the Mekong with little consultation with its downstream neighbors.  Several are operational, reportedly influencing downstream hydrology and leading to a range of impacts such as sedimentation, erosion of riverbanks and changing nutrient profiles. Local fishermen in Thailand hold the dams responsible for the depletion of what was once a plentiful fish supply.  The Mekong’s flow is also reported to be unpredictable since China started damming the Lancang and is blamed for both uncharacteristic droughts and floods downstream.

While China’s thirst for water is worrying its neighbors, it seems that it’s is not alone in dam building, with downstream countries also engaged in controversial projects. Twelve dams, estimated at over 14.5-MW installed capacity, are currently in the offing with regard to the lower Mekong, amongst claims that altered flood hydrology immediately downstream of the Lancang dams makes the economics of dam building more favorable than previously.

The first, the controversial Xayaburi dam being proposed by Laos, is in limbo, with further studies needed given scientific consensus that not enough is understood about the potential impacts of this and other dams proposed. Laos has already built several dams on tributaries of the Mekong.

The Lao government is treading murky waters; it seems Vietnam and Cambodia are against the Xayaburi Dam, while not only are Thai banks set to provide the capital with a Thai company leading construction,  but  most of the power generated would be for Thai consumers. All four countries are part of the Mekong Rivers Commission.

Anxiety is also rising over fears that should it go ahead, the Xayaburi Dam will literally open the floodgates to the series of dams proposed along the Mekong including several more in Laos as well as Thailand and Cambodia, with untold impacts on downstream users. Food security is bound to be an issue, particularly in Cambodia, where the Mekong's wet season flows, back up into the Tonle Sap, increasing fish productivity and providing a major source of protein for millions of people [ix].