The intricate politics of water

JINGHONG DAM

Rivers are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of nations. Rivers provide water but also sustain plant and animal life both on the banks and beneath the surface. Fish travel up rivers to spawn. Rivers feed the ground-water supply and help farmers keep an equilibrium between wet seasons and dry.

But who controls the river? What rights do various nations have when the river flows through their territory? One only has to look at the fate of the Colorado river in North America to see the downstream impact of up-stream actions. Thanks to the water consumption of California, the mighty Colorado no longer even makes it to Mexico where it flowed for thousands of years.

What if China did the same to the Mekong that flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam?  Pictured above is the awesome Jinghong dam in China, built to generate much needed electricity. But this dam can effectively turn-off the Mekong tap, and limit the river flow – affecting water supply and fishing.

China is not alone here. Since 2006 some 11 dam sites have been nominated for hydro dam construction in Thailand, in Cambodia and – with 7 slated projects – in Laos. Everybody wants a slice of the resource.

In attempt to co-ordinate management of the Mekong resource, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand governments formed the Mekong River Commission with which Myanmar and China also confer. The MRC was formed in 1995, but this last year has faced serious internal problems through lack of funding and very divisive disagreements between the member nations. In particular, the dam projects planned by Laos threaten to seriously impact the fishing on the river – estimated by the MRC to be an annual 4.4 million tonne catch worth almost $17 billion. That represents around one eighth of the value of the world’s total freshwater fish catch.

Make no mistake, as China flexes its economic muscle in the region, downstream nations namely Cambodia and Vietnam have a lot to lose.  Decreased flows from the Mekong have already led to increasing salination – from salty sea water – of delta flats in Vietnam, rendering farms and local freshwater fisheries unsustainable.

This year, in the face of the SE Asian drought experienced by the Mekong nations, China scored a diplomatic coup by announcing to the MRC that the Jinghong dam would release a substantial flow of water to alleviate the drought situation downstream for one month to mid-April 2016.

It was a generous gesture, but it was also a reminder that what can be turned on can equally be turned off.  The Mekong River, more than ever before, is up for grabs.

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Hard economy ahead for Cambodian farmers?

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One of the most moving moments in a trip I made to Cambodia in 2009 was when I spoke with a woman at the marketplace out on Highway Number 6.  She had staked her claim to a fairly prominent spot near the road, and she was selling herbs and vegetables.

That morning she had set out from Bakong at 3:00am by bicycle in order to arrive at the market early enough to get a good position, but when I spoke to her near midday sales had been slow and the vegetables were wilting in the April heat.  Today she would make less than 4000 riel, or less than a dollar for her effort.

Cambodian farmers live in a knife edge between self-sufficiency and disaster. Savong noticed an uptick in demand for places at his residential home for children SHEC (formerly SOC) after flooding wiped out rice crops during the most recent monsoon season, late last year.  One event like that can render all hope of putting enough food into the mouths of the family.

Fishing is also a staple part of local agriculture, and the lifeblood of Cambodia (as it is in neighbouring countries) is the Mekong River which descends from China and defines much of the SE Asian delta.  In Cambodia it indirectly feeds the Tonle Sap lake when, during the dry season the river out of the lake changes direction, and the Mekong flows inland.

But fishing on the Mekong is under threat thanks to hydro schemes in neighbouring nations, schemes that will stop the migration and breeding of fish, as well as from intensification of fishing including banned practices such as dynamiting.

This attached article features discussion about the river, and about recent films – made by Cambodians – that document the changing course of the river’s influence in modern Cambodia.

Between climate change and human impact, the outlook for agriculture in Cambodia is getting no safer, no more reliable than before. In some respects the recipe is forming for an economic catastrophe.