An action plan agreed by the leaders of China and five Southeast Asian neighbors to step up industrialization and urbanization in their common Mekong River region has sharpened longstanding concerns about the environmental damage from Chinese dam-building on the key water source.
Mekong-Lancang Cooperation forum, co-chaired by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and attended by leaders from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar, wrapped up Wednesday with a Phnom Penh Declaration to promote greater cooperation in managing and utilizing river resources.
China, which refers to the Mekong as the Lancang, has built eight dams on the river since the 1990s and has a dozen or more planned or under construction on the 5,000 km (3,100 mile) river that originates on the Tibetan Plateau and empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam. Laos is also building a planning a series of dams to boost power generation.
“While the action plan focuses very much on infrastructure development, leaders were paying less attention to the projects’ environmental impact,” said Pianporn Deetes, Thailand Campaign Coordinator for the NGO International Rivers.
Environmental activists in Cambodia told RFA’s Khmer Service they were concerned the six leaders overlooked threats to the livelihoods and food security of people who rely on the Mekong in a push to reap benefits from development. Some 60 million people rely on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transport.
“I don’t know what kind of development the summit focused on exactly to help improve the river population’s basic needs in their daily living by improving or reducing poverty along the Mekong River. They did not address these issues,” said environmental activist Chum Huot.
He said that residents of the Mekong basin have been hit by “water course shifts, falling fish catches or flooding.”
“How can the government solve these problems and help river communities improve their incomes? They didn’t address these issues.”
Chinese influence seen expanding
A resident of a Mekong river village in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province, Sok Veasna, said a thousand families will be affected by the Lower Sesan 2 dam on the Sesan River, a major Mekong tributary.
“We are concerned about development along the Mekong River without transparency and comprehensive studies,” he told RFA.
The Lower Sesan 2 dam is merely one dam constructed on a tributary of the Mekong, the Sesan River, and yet it has had a huge impact. The Mekong River will see greater impact should such developers fail to carry out proper studies, research and analysis,” added Sok Veasna.
Others voiced concerns that China and its interests would dominate the Mekong forum, deepening Beijing’s influence in a region of authoritarian governments.
“The Mekong-Lancang Cooperation mechanism is good,” Cambodian political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA.
“Yet I’m afraid China will take this opportunity to employ the Mekong River or its MLC cooperation mechanism as a pretext to further exert its influence so as to reap both economic and strategic benefits from the region.”
Mong Hay said China’s One-Road One-Belt initiative, under which most Mekong and related development plans fall, “shows that China is trying to exert its influence throughout the whole of Asia and, in particular, Southeast Asia.
The China-led forum, set up in 2016, is seen by many in the region as a rival to the Mekong River Commission, which was formed in the 1950s but excludes China and Myanmar. It also competes with a 2009 U.S. program called the Lower Mekong Initiative, involving Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Lao and Khmer Services. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.