Floods in Vietnam's Mekong Delta in a file photo. Photo: IMF / Twitter

The Mekong River is dying. Everyone knows it – but discussions about the transformative actions that this catastrophic reality should trigger were totally absent from Thursday’s sessions of the 27th council meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). 

It is obvious that the current model for sharing the Mekong’s resources is very far from sustainable – and that urgent action is needed to chart a new course for the river, which will underpin the region’s sustainable development rather than undermine it.

Just ask the fishing communities around Tonle Sap who’ve seen their catches collapse as water levels in the river fall to historic lows. Or families in the delta who’ve watched their lands and livelihoods crumble as the riverbanks erode.

And the scientific evidence is just as alarming. Indeed, the facts are as clear as stretches of the Mekong were recently: stretches that should always be murky and muddy with sediment.

But Thursday’s proceedings in Laos, which WWF was invited to attend, including approval of the 2021-2030 Basin Development Strategy and 2021-2025 work plan, made me think that the MRC is talking about another river entirely.

Thailand did request more in-depth analysis of the impact on fisheries and sediment flow of future dams, notably the soon-to-be-started Sanakham hydropower dam in northern Laos, while Vietnam once again called for MRC impact assessment procedures to be rigorously followed.

Some development partners raised concerns about natural-resource depletion and increasing risk of floods and droughts. But nothing was tabled that suggested that the Mekong is on life support or that emergency measures are needed to save it.

Yet the MRC’s own 2018 State of the Basin report paints a very worrying picture of the current “health” of the Mekong. The flagship report acknowledges that recent socio-economic developments were achieved at “considerable cost to the environment.”

It concludes that all three strategic environment indicators – water flow in the mainstem, water quality and sediment conditions, and status of environmental assets – are in the red. Furthermore, it points to the shocking decline in freshwater species, with the iconic Mekong giant catfish and population of Irrawaddy river dolphins among a dozen species on the critically endangered list – just one small step from extinction.

If that were not enough, the report’s foreword issues an unmistakable warning. “Key areas of concern that require our specific attention are the seemingly permanent modification of mainstream flow regime, the substantial reduction in sediment flows due to sediment trapping, the continuing loss of wetlands, the deterioration of riverine habitats and the growing pressures on capture fisheries.”

However, instead of gathering together to agree on new measures to safeguard the river’s resources for the benefit of people and nature, the MRC Council met to discuss additional monitoring activities, as if the symptoms of the river’s sickness are not readily apparent to all – and to discuss yet more hydropower projects on the main river, which will further weaken the resilience of the river.

Amazingly, delegates who were physically able to attend the council meeting were to enjoy a field trip on Friday to the controversial Don Sahong hydropower dam, widely regarded as an unnecessary dam that will generate relatively little power in return for its sizable impact on the river’s fisheries.

The people of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam who rely on the Lower Mekong were not looking to the MRC’s 27th Council to rubber-stamp yet more assessments. They needed it to commit to urgent action to enhance the health of the river, which is the foundation of their societies and economies.

The region’s people need a new development plan sustainably to utilize and share the river’s resources that will reverse the collapse in its freshwater fisheries – the most productive in the world and the most sustainable way of producing animal protein for tens of millions of people who are already facing a severe burden due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

They need a strategic approach to the river that invests in building with nature to build the basin’s resilience to cope with the increasing number of extreme droughts and floods, which are destroying lives and livelihoods and disrupting economic growth.

They need a collaborative solution to the vast reduction in sediment flow in the lower stretches of the Mekong, which has led to the uncontrollable erosion of its banks, and contributed to the sinking and shrinking of its delta.

They need a moratorium on all new hydropower dams on the mainstem of the Mekong – something Cambodia announced this year – with funds being diverted into sustainable renewables, like solar and wind. Instead, the council meeting discussed procedures to approve the sixth hydropower dam on the mainstem of the Lower Mekong, while merely seeking updates on the other poorly planned projects that are already under way. Together, these projects threaten to doom the river.

Sadly, it seems as if the MRC is stuck with the mindset of when it was formed – back in the 20th century. But the best development pathway for the Mekong in light of the twin crises of climate change and nature loss is not more large hydropower dams.

The renewable revolution – powered by the plunging price of solar and wind generation and storage technologies – means we can meet our global climate and energy goals without damming any more of our remaining free-flowing rivers, including the Lower Mekong. Countries as diverse as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Cambodia and Zambia have seen the light. It is time the MRC and its development partners did too.

In particular, solar offers Mekong countries the chance to build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the best all-round solution: one that is low-cost, low-carbon, and low-conflict with the river and communities and will generate power and electrify communities quicker and cheaper than hydropower. By keeping the Mekong free-flowing, it will also help to safeguard the river’s remaining fisheries and priceless biodiversity.

Given the escalating crisis, the MRC should be devoting all its resources and political power to rallying Mekong countries behind an emergency plan to restore the health of the river. Instead, Thursday’s council meeting confirmed that it is sticking rigidly to its official mandate and continuing to watch – or rather “monitor” – the disaster unfolding.

The Mekong shaped our civilizations and stands as a symbol of our unity and a solid foundation for a prosperous Southeast Asia. But time is running out for the river – and for the MRC to champion a new course, especially after the outcome of Thursday’s meeting. If the next council meeting doesn’t adopt a radically different approach, history and the people of the Mekong will not be kind to the MRC.

An earlier version of this article was published by WWF. Read it here.

Marc Goichot

Marc Goichot leads the Regional Water Initiative of WWF Greater Mekong as well as WWF’s Resilient Asian Deltas Initiative. He is a geographer specializing in the management of large rivers with a specific interest in sediment management fluvial geomorphology, flood management and the promotion of free-flowing rivers. He has 20 years of professional experience in the Greater Mekong region.