• Humanitarian Affairs Asia

The environment, not economics, is at stake in the vital Mekong River Region

BY ALLYSON BERRI, at the Diplomatic Courier.

In 2011, then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for increased American engagement in the Asia-Pacific region. This followed the 2009 introduction of the Lower Mekong Initiative (LMI), an American policy that established re-engagement with five of the countries (Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand) that border the Mekong River in Southeast Asia. The goal of the LMI is to “positively contribute” to “education, the environment, health, and infrastructure” in the Mekong River region. Though the policy sets several diverse goals aimed at stimulating development along the Mekong, including improving water sanitation and advancing English-learning opportunities, one of its larger geopolitical initiatives has little to do with the Mekong river countries. In the shadow of a looming Chinese presence, the LMI clearly seeks to establish better geopolitical balance in the Mekong river area.


The U.S. has many reasons to be competitive with a growing Chinese superpower. In 2010, China became the world’s second-largest economy; only the U.S. amasses a larger annual GDP. Over the last two years, the relationship between the two countries has been defined by escalating trade tensions. It only makes sense that conflict between the two powerhouses would meet in the Mekong river region, where Chinese influence has been growing for over a decade.

Currently, Southeast Asia is one of the most critical regions in the world for climate change, and the coastal cities that make up much of the Mekong region are especially vulnerable. Further, the dams China has already built on the Mekong reduce water levels, hurting local fish populations and damaging farms downstream. China’s plans to make the river wider promise even more environmental damage, threatening food security for people in the region.

Further, the environmental impact of Beijing’s future development projects along the Mekong could have an even more severe environmental impact on the region. In Cambodia, where China has plans to build its biggest dam yet at Sambor, the environmental impact could be massive. A study commissioned by the Cambodian government found that the dam could “literally kill the river,” threatening fish populations and exacerbating the impacts of climate change. The report even identified Sambor as the “worst possible place” to build a hydropower dam.


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