Water levels run low on the Mekong River. Photo: AFP Forum/Paritta Wangkiat
Water levels often run low on the Mekong River downstream from hydropower dams. Photo: AFP Forum / Paritta Wangkiat

Evidence of the climate crisis is everywhere. The Mekong River has recorded historically low dry-season flows for the third year in a row, alongside an increase in the frequency of extreme flood events. Its delta is continuing to sink and shrink, while its riverbanks erode, undermining houses, roads and bridges. 

Fishers in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap despair as their catches decline, while Vietnamese farmers watch salt water intrude further inland each year, poisoning more of their rice paddies and fruit orchards.

This is our reality, and the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is only going to get worse. 

It is clear that the need for effective solutions to build climate resilience along the Mekong is urgent. These solutions must work for all societies and economies that depend on the river to adapt to climate change, but especially for poor and marginalized communities, including the Mekong’s female fishers, who play essential roles in the use and management of water and aquatic resources and are key contributors to local economies. 

Such solutions include not investing in poorly planned and uncoordinated infrastructure projects that will further undermine the health of the river, the delta and the future of the millions of people who rely on it for drinking water, irrigation, fisheries and livelihoods. 

Cambodia has already shown leadership, by committing to no hydropower dams on the mainstem at the Climate COP26 last month in Glasgow. However, at the 28th Council Meeting of the Mekong River Commission last week, the MRC did not take the serious step of urging the postponement of planned hydropower dams, despite scientific evidence of the negative impacts on food security for millions, agricultural land productivity, fisheries, biodiversity and a climate-resilient delta. 

Climate change will dictate the future of the Mekong region and should be integral to all MRC discussions. Yet despite the huge global interest in COP26, we only heard timid references to that critically important event. Instead, the council agreed to expedite plans for four mainstream dams so that the approval processes will be completed by December 2022.

Absurdly, while the MRC is going through the approval motions for these major dams, it is simultaneously conducting a joint environmental monitoring (JEM) program that focuses on measuring the impact of the controversial Xayaburi and Don Sahong hydropower dams. The JEM ought to be completed first so that its findings can feed into the approval process for the new dams. 

Alarm bells have been ringing loudly over the years, calling for immediate and effective action. So witnessing the MRC Council last week, I was struck and saddened by the seeming lack of urgency among those tasked with plotting the best course for the river and the communities of men and women who depend on it. 

Like the rest of the world, the Mekong region will primarily feel the impacts of climate change through water, including food insecurity and community livelihoods. So the health of the Mekong river system, which is the mission of the MRC, must be central to adaptation and resilience. 

The challenges of the Mekong are indeed complex and resolving these will require substantive deliberations and more collaborative governance that use the knowledge and expertise of diverse stakeholders including civil-society organizations. CSOs were invited this week to a consultation on the Sanakham hydropower project on the Mekong – a token gesture, since the decision has already been made to move the project forward. 

This is another example of the elephant – or rather the Mekong giant catfish – in the MRC room. The discussion has always focused on how and when to build mainstem hydropower dams – never if they are part of the best overall energy mix and development plan for both people and nature.

We know they are not. The impacts of existing dams are clear with scientific evidence. The future impacts of the planned dams are obvious. The MRC’s failure to act will further undermine the chance of building resilience along the river. It will leave societies and economies unable to adapt to the floods, droughts and sea-level rise that climate change will unleash on the region.

There was also no mention of September’s World Food Summit, which acknowledged the importance of freshwater resources for food production and freshwater fisheries for protein, nor the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) World Congress, which concluded that safeguarding biodiversity and investing in nature are critical to addressing the climate crisis.

It seemed that the council was meeting in a vacuum – unable, or unwilling, to base its deliberations on the latest facts from the Mekong or global thinking on renewable energy, nature-positive food systems, and sustainable development.

Le Cong Thanh, Vietnamese deputy minister of natural resources and environment, who is vice-chairman of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, did focus on the need to reduce impacts on ecosystems and develop funding mechanisms to do so. In particular, he highlighted erosion of the delta, which is largely due to the drastic reduction in sediment flowing down the Mekong because of hydropower dams and unsustainable sand mining.

Yet no other country took up the issue and no solution was suggested.

The MRC has a duty to provide advice that factors in what is best for the river and the people who rely on it, based on the strong scientific evidence it has gathered over the past 20 years. Sadly, it did not live up to its obligations during last week’s meeting – potentially damning the Mekong and all who depend on it in the process.

Lan Mercado

Lan Mercado is WWF Asia-Pacific regional director.