Managing the Mekong

Southeast Asia’s most important river basin must play a delicate balancing act between water, food, and electricity resources amid increasing demands.

Photo: Dax Ward/Flickr

We tend to think of the resources we need one by one. There’s the water we drink, the food we eat, and the energy we use, each a distinct and separate resource whose supply and demand must be properly balanced. Rarely do we think about how these resources are connected, how generating greater supply of one resource may impact the supply of another, how our increased demand for energy may decrease the amount of available food to eat.

In the Mekong River Basin, there’s a constant balancing act happening between rice, fish, water, and hydroelectric power, not just between the six countries who share these resources, but between the resources themselves.

The 795-million square kilometer river basin is home to more than 70 million people spread across six countries: Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam in the lower basin and China, Myanmar, and Thailand in the upper basin. Roughly 85% of the population in the basin is rural, though the area is also home to several urban centers, including Phnom Penh and Vientiane, the capitals and largest cities of Cambodia and Laos respectively.

For the people who live in the Mekong River Basin, the river and its tributaries are their primary source of water, food, energy, and economic livelihood. The groundwater of the basin is replenished by the Mekong’s continual flow, providing safe drinking water for much of the region. In countries like Laos and Cambodia, where a quarter of the total population and even more in rural areas still don’t have access to clean drinking water, replenishing the basin’s groundwater is vital.

The rivers and the basin it replenishes also support two crucial sources of food: fish and rice. The Mekong River Basin is home to the largest inland freshwater fishery in the world, producing some 2 million tons in catches each year. Additionally, agriculture in the basin produces enough rice to feed 300 million people per year, making it home to more than one-fifth of the world’s rice exports. The plentiful fish and rice of the region are dependent on the nutrient-rich sediment and clean water carried downstream by the river.

Lastly, the Mekong River and its tributaries are one of the world’s most active areas for hydroelectric dams, which produce electricity through the kinetic force of the river flow. This process produces thousands of megawatts of clean, renewable energy per year, but also interrupts and slows the river’s natural flow. The lower basin has the potential for an estimated 30,000 megawatts of hydroelectric power, but the region is only producing 10% of this capacity, with another 10% under construction.

Hydroelectric dams in the Mekong River Basin
Existing and planned hydroelectric dams in the Mekong River Basin (University of Canterbury)

Beyond the direct importance of the resources provided by the river, the Mekong creates an economic ecosystem for rural communities in the basin. An estimated 85% of the basin’s rural population is employed in agriculture, fishing, or forestry - all of which are dependent on the health of the river and the sustainable management of its resources. For every fisherman catching fish in the river, there are others in the area who rent out boats, repair equipment, and transport goods, meaning that the loss of the fisheries would devastate a whole supply chain of jobs and economic productivity.

But the Mekong River Basin’s delicate balance between the demands for its different natural resources is being increasingly strained by population growth and economic development.

First and foremost, Southeast Asia has grown fast over the past few decades, doubling in population since the 1970s due to a rapid decline in mortality. The region is now home to 600 million people - more than either the European Union or North America. The sheer size of the population has led to greater and greater resource needs to feed, clothe, and power everyone.

But more importantly, not only has the population grown, they’ve become middle-class. According to Nielsen, the number of Southeast Asians living in the middle class is expected to more than double from 190 million in 2012 to 400 million by 2020. The middle class in almost any country around the world is the key driver of domestic consumption and subsequently resource demands. Middle class families eat more meat, which requires more water to produce than vegetables, and they use more electricity as they buy more electronics, install air conditioning, and build larger homes.

The combination of a growing population and an increasingly middle-class population in Southeast Asia has led to greater resource demands across the region, and in turn a greater reliance on the Mekong River Basin’s bounty. For countries like Vietnam, whose electricity consumption is expected to triple from 2011 to 2020, exploiting the river basin’s hydroelectric potential is crucial to their continued economic development.

The greater demands on the Mekong have important feedback effects that often require trade-offs between resources. The biggest challenge for the basin is the effect of upstream damming and hydroelectric production on downstream ecological systems.

The reduction of river flow by upstream dams can both increase water salinity and reduce the amount of silt making its way down the river to replenish the nutrients of the soil, both of which hurt agricultural production and fishery health. The reduction of silt flowing down to delta cities also exacerbates coastal erosion, as the soil that washes away into the sea isn’t sufficiently replaced by the river.

These feedback effects aren’t always immediately obvious, and the consequences often take place far from the cause. For instance, hydroelectric dams built along the Kong River in Vietnam end up reducing river flow to the Mekong and in turn hurting fishing production in the Tonlé Sap, a freshwater lake in Cambodia that yields 300,000 tons of fish per year.

As demands increase on the basin and these feedback loops begin to multiply, cooperation between the basin’s six countries will be crucial. One point of tension will be between the needs of the three more economically-developed countries - China, Thailand, and Vietnam - and the three less economically-developed countries - Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia. China, Thailand, and Vietnam face rapidly increasing energy demands and urban populations, and thus want to use the Mekong’s water for electricity and industrial production. Meanwhile, Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia’s economies are still heavily dependent on agriculture and food production, and thus want to use the Mekong’s water for irrigation, rice fields, and fishery health.

There’s no right answer for how best to use the Mekong’s waters or how to judge whether electricity in southern China or rice production in Laos is more important. Even well-engineered and well-negotiated solutions are likely result in higher electricity prices, less access to drinking water, or greater coastal erosion. If these tradeoffs can’t be managed well, tensions between the basin’s six countries are bound to increase.

The Mekong River Commission, established by the 1995 Mekong Agreement, has done its best to keep adjudicate between differing resource demands and ensure the sustainable use of the river, but its job will only get harder as the countries continue to grow, develop, and demand more. For a region that is just beginning to reach its human, social, and economic potential, future progress will still depend heavily on the health of the powerful river that runs through it.


Ken Sofer was a summer fellow with the Resource Security program at New America where he worked on the intersection between climate change, resource competition, and international security.