Managing the Mekong River in Southeast Asia: Chronicle of a Disaster

Managing the Mekong River in Southeast Asia: Chronicle of a Disaster

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By Javier Gil Pérez

The Mekong River originates in China, a region of Tibet. The prospects are bleak for a vital river for sixty million people and it once again shows that global policies are needed for the management and conservation of our natural resources.

China's enormous economic growth is causing its political leaders to launch a massive search for natural resources for energy production. This has meant that China is present in Sudan, Angola or even and this is the case of our analysis, a frantic race has started years ago to control one of the great rivers of Asia, the Mekong, which consequently affects the entire bathed region. by the Mekong and the people who inhabit it (Glassman, 2010).

The Mekong River (Nguyen, 1999) originates in China, a region of Tibet, but its length of 4,800 km, more than half circulating through China, causes its channel to cross a good part of peninsular Southeast Asia, that is, Myanmar, Laos (1600 km), Cambodia (480 km), Thailand (920 km that form the border with Laos) and Vietnam (200 km). The other great characteristic of the Mekong River is that it rises at 5,224 meters high and from there it descends to end its course in the Mekong delta, already in the territory of Vietnam, being one of the rivers with the greatest unevenness in the world. At the same time, the set of land that irrigates its waters is equivalent to the sum of France and Germany, so its importance for the entire region is extreme. At the level of biodiversity, the richness of its waters is only behind the great Amazon, so the importance of this river for global nature is key.

As an eminently international river that is the Mekong River, its management should have the approval and collaboration of all the countries through which it circulates. But the situation is quite different since there is a growing confrontation between China and the countries of continental Southeast Asia over the management and especially over the exploitation of their natural resources.

China has three dams in operation on the Mekong River in its territory, Mawan, Duchashan and Jinghong, another four are planned, and finally, the Xiowan Dam is being built which, if built, would be the highest dam in the world with 292 meters and would cause a serious interruption in the natural course of the river to the south. China's desire to build dams is centered on its growing energy deficit and consequently seeks to depend less on imports of gas and oil.

At the same time that enormous pressure is taking place against the Mekong River in its upper basin, outside China the pressure is increasing since, as shown on the map, there are ten other dams planned by the various countries of Southeast Asia that would end up definitively change the character of the river and would produce serious and lasting effects on fishery resources, destroy the river's biodiversity and ultimately produce irreversible changes in the ways of life of the people who live on its waters. In fact, there is growing inequality in access to water resources throughout the area, which could lead to two serious consequences for all affected societies (Resurrecion, Dao, Lazarus and Badenoch, 2011).

On the one hand, the possible movement of people due to the destruction of their natural habitat, which could lead to local conflicts and, on the other hand, the head-on clash between countries, mainly China and Vietnam, which have previously had clashes over the Spratly Islands since both represent the maximum people involved in the management of the river.

The reason for this bad management of the river is produced by three key factors: on the one hand, the uncontrolled growth of the population both in China and in the countries of Southeast Asia, an aspect that is exerting unsustainable pressure on the river in terms of exploitation mass of all kinds of resources linked to the river: water, food, wood, energy, etc. Thus, it can be argued that economic development is taking precedence over nature's own sustainability. On the other hand and secondly, the slow development of renewable energies in all the affected countries is making the construction of dams the most feasible option for all of them for power generation. Third, the large organization that should manage the Mekong River, that is, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), is not working and fulfilling the objectives for which it was created. The MRC was established on April 5, 1995 with the objective of (1) “cooperating in all fields of sustainable development, use, management and conservation of the water and related resources of the Mekong River”.

Chinese dams on the Mekong River (2)

The four components of the MRC are Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand being observer members, Myanmar and the great one involved in the current management and destruction of the Mekong River, China.

Although the objective of the organization is legitimate and feasible, the organization has two underlying problems that are causing the Mekong River to be cut into pieces and used for the self-interest of each country.

The first problem is that the main executor of the Mekong River, China, is not present in the organization as an executive member but as an observer, which mitigates and erodes the function of the organization by not being able to establish an effective dialogue between all those involved in the river management. This fact denatures the organization itself. For this reason, the inclusion of China, and to a lesser extent that of Myanmar, is an essential condition to provide the organization with executive force.

Secondly, due to demographic pressure, together with the great economic growth of the countries involved, in an interval of 5-7%, national interests are taking precedence over the old wishes for collaboration between all the countries involved and this It has caused the organization itself to lose the capacity to manage the river since a race for the construction of dams has begun. Thus the concepts of national sovereignty over the river are supplanting the global management of the river as a unitary entity.

All this shows dark prospects for a vital river for sixty million people and shows once again that global policies are needed for the management and conservation of our natural resources.

Javier Gil Pérez He is a researcher at the General Gutiérrez Mellado University Institute since 2007. He is currently a visiting researcher at the Asia Research Center of the London School of Economics, where he investigates new threats to security in Southeast Asia.


(1) MRC., About the MRC, at:

(2) Richardson, Michael, Dams in China Turn the Mekong Into a River of Discord: Rivers Know No Borders, But Dams Do, at:


Glasmann, Jim., Bounding the Mekong, University of Hawai Press, Honolulu, 2010.

Nguyen, Thi Dieu., The Mekong river and the struggle for Indochina: water war and peace, Praeger, London, 1999.

Lazarus, Kate, Badenoch, Nathan, Dao, Nga and Resurrection, Bernadette., Water rights and social justice in the Mekong river, Earthscan, London, 2011.


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