New Climate Change Fears, Old Mekong Problems

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New Climate Change Fears, Old Mekong Problems

The evidence continues to pile up on the river’s bleak future.

New Climate Change Fears, Old Mekong Problems
Credit: Flickr/Arian Zwegers

The Mekong River, one of the world’s longest and resource-rich rivers, deserves international attention and recognition as a frontier with governments and developers — who see the river an industrial production tool — on one side and the people who live along its vast waterways and backed by environmentalists on the other.

The future of the Mekong will be underpinned by climate change. This was highlighted by the drought of 2015 and 2016 when China appeared to be playing the hero and announced it would release water from its upstream dams to alleviate water shortages in the Mekong Delta.

Of course, that may not have been necessary in the first place had the dams not been built and the water withheld upstream. But dams in China and neighboring Southeast Asian states like Laos, depleted fish stocks, and a changing climate are also undermining the river’s future.

A recent report found that net migration out of the lower delta region is increasing with around 1.7 million people migrating out over the last decade, more than double the national migration average in Vietnam, reshaping life on the banks of the world’s 12th longest river.

“This implies that there is something else – probably climate-related – going on here,” the authors Alex Chapman and Van Pham Dang Tri said in the Australian edition of The Conversation.

It found salt water had intruded up to 80 kilometers inland during the 2015/16 drought, dangerously close to the Cambodian border, destroying crops and sugar cane harvests along the way and causing people to move.

The authors also referred to a report by Oanh Le Thi Kim and Truong Le Minh of Van Lang University, suggesting climate change is the dominant factor in the decisions of 14.5 percent of migrants leaving the Mekong Delta.

“If this figure is correct, climate change is forcing 24,000 people to leave the region every year. And it’s worth pointing out the largest factor in individual decisions to leave the Delta was found to be the desire to escape poverty. As climate change has a growing and complex relationship with poverty, 14.5 percent may even be an underestimate.”

The annual fish catch in Mekong and Lower Delta region has been valued, by one estimate, at around $11 billion. But the harvest has also plummeted over the last decade or so with rampant overfishing and illegal use of equipment contributing heavily to the fall alongside dam construction.

And further development is unlikely to stop with Chinese funded projects, which according to the state-run government mouthpiece Xinhua will boost “connectivity, water management and industrial production capacity.”

In January, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced Beijing would provide more than $1 billion in concessional loans within the framework of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) with the five downstream Mekong countries. This was on top of previous assistance under the theme:  “Our River of Peace and Sustainable Development.”

But sustainable development is a prickly term. China has long had issues with the management of its own environment at home, let alone its conduct abroad on this front which is becoming even more clear with the development of the Belt and Road Initiative. The riparian states along the Mekong River are also not free of responsibility in this respect: their quest for energy and capital has sometimes meant that the environment and the livelihoods of their own people have taken a backseat.

The writing has long been on the wall for the Mekong, and we have seen a continued pattern where new evidence suggests the problem is only worsening. Should we begin to see some of the more dramatic consequences that have long been predicted, one thing is for sure: governments will not be able to use lack of evidence or scientific backing as an excuse.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt