As Mekong River dries, watchdogs decry China dam

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A wholesaler at a fish market in the Vietnamese city of Cao Lanh says, “The number of wild-caught fish dropped drastically.”

MEKONG DELTA, Vietnam — Water levels in the Mekong River have been dropping, wreaking havoc on local agricultural and fishing industries. The rapid decline is thought to have been precipitated by Chinese dam construction upstream on this major river that originates in China and runs through five Southeast Asian countries before emptying into the South China Sea. As the river dries up, so does the livelihood of the river basin residents, who are increasingly being left high and dry.

‘The soil has died’

In late January, Tien, 35, gazed up at a coconut tree that had seemingly stopped growing: “Even the fruit has shrunk. What are we supposed to do now?”

For decades, Tien’s family made their living growing coconut along the Mekong River tributary town of Giong Trom in southern Vietnam. But in recent years, the trees began to wither as salt seeped into the soil, deposited by sea water that intrudes up into the delta, overpowering the weakened Mekong.

Sales of coconuts, which used to average 10 million dong (about ¥45,000) per month, dropped to a mere 1 million dong (about ¥4,500) over the entirety of last year. Tien said, “The rice crop in this area has been terrible, too. It’s as if the soil has died.”

Only farmed fish were seen for sale in the fish market in the Vietnamese city of Cao Lanh, near the Cambodian border. A woman who works as a wholesaler at the market said, “We hardly get wild fish anymore.” The influx of seawater has altered the ecosystem, and fish are no longer caught on the previous scale.

The Mekong Delta accounts for over 50% of Vietnam’s rice production and had been the seat of flourishing fruit and fish industries. Yet drought and salination reached historically dire proportions during the dry spell from 2019 to 2020, affecting 41,900 hectares of rice paddies and 6,650 hectares of fruit orchards, according to the Vietnamese agricultural authorities.

Pointing to China

The Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organization made up of four countries in the basin — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam — issued a statement on Feb. 12 warning that water levels have fallen to an alarming level. Citing a hydroelectric dam in China’s Yunnan Province as a root cause, the commission exhorted China to heed its negative impact on the river ecosystem and jeopardization of livelihoods in the basin.

This was the first time the MRC has criticized China by name. The Chinese side admitted that it had temporarily closed the dam to store water, but there is still no indication that they have taken any fundamental steps to rectify the issue.

As the situation is unlikely to improve, some residents have started to abandon farming and fishing altogether. Tran Van Luc, 46, the vice principal of a technical college near Cao Lanh who teaches agriculture, said: “When advising students on future career paths, we do not recommend rice farming, which is particularly susceptible to the effects of salination.”

There have even been reports of entire fishing villages laying down their gear and switching to other industries because the catch has been poor.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A person is seen working in the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam. The delta has been known for its rice and coconut production but has recently been exposed to dramatic environmental changes.

U.S.-China competition

The Mekong River has become the latest arena in a rivalry between China and the United States that has spilled over from the South China Sea. In response to China’s attempts to make inroads in the river basin nations through developmental aid, countries such as the United States and Australia have also been stepping up their own financial contributions in the region.

In 2016, China held a summit attended by leaders from the four MRC member states and their official dialogue partner, Myanmar, which resulted in the creation of a huge financing framework for the development of social infrastructure in the basin nations. As the MRC receives backing from the United States, Japan and Europe, China has sought to build its own relationships with the four member states and Myanmar in a way that skirts the official auspices of the MRC itself.

China has so far refused to provide detailed data on its water usage. According to Reuters, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a foreign ministers’ meeting with the five countries in February last year that a lack of rain was the main cause of the drought in the region and that China had also suffered from it. His comments tacitly rebutted the possibility that the Mekong’s decline had been caused by Chinese dam development.

The United States has proved more eager to investigate the impact of China’s dam development. It has also been pressuring the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which includes the Mekong River basin countries, to push back against China.

Last September, the United States launched the Mekong-U.S. Partnership as a framework for regional cooperation with the five basin countries and Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, used the partnership’s first meeting, held online, to criticize China. The U.S. State Department last December announced a plan to monitor China’s use of dams through satellite photos and other means.

According to Vietnamese state media, the United States pledged last year that it would contribute $153 million (about ¥16.1 billion) to support the basin countries. Australia is also due to launch a program to provide 30 million Australian dollars (about ¥2.5 billion) in aid over the next eight years starting as early as this month.