/The Mekong River, Water Wars, and Information Wars

The Mekong River, Water Wars, and Information Wars

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

I’m afraid this is a post where I did indeed catch a bird, just not the one that I intended to catch. I had thought to write a post the Mekong River part of the biosphere (as with coral, mangroves, soil, and algae in Lake Erie) but as it turned out, all the recent news on the topic was polluted by a State Department propaganda operation (pause here to give the Administration and Secretary Pompeo credit for more subtlety than they usually display). So instead of going into any detail on the Mekong — from the poetic Thai and Lao mae khong, or “Mother of Waters” (river) “Khong,” and don’t @ me, Southeast Asian language mavens — I’ll pause to appreciate its beauty, give a brief description of it as ecological system, present the geopolitical situation, and then dive into the swirl of opinion generated by the State Department’s report. I’ll conclude with a brief description of how (some) NGOs conceive of the problem. (That means I won’t get to quote from this excellent article in the Financial Times on sand mining in the Mekong delta: “The Mekong Delta: an unsettling portrait of coastal collapse,” which you should go read if you’re interested in that part of the world[1].)

But first, the beauty part:

Absurdly touristic but still beatiful:

A floating village:

(This image reminds me of LeGuin’s Raft People in The Farthest Shore; I don’t want to romanticize the villages, but I feel, and I feel that the elders would feel, that something would be lost if they disappeared, even if there’s no satellite dish in sight.)

Turning to the Mekong as an ecological system, from “Mekong Wonders” at ArcGis (well worth a read itself).

The Mekong River rises in the glaciated Tibetan Plateau and flows through six countries (China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam) in South East Asia, and is the 12th longest river (4909 km) in the world and the 3rd longest in Asia. In terms of average discharge the Mekong is 18th largest river in the world at 16,000 m3/s putting it just behind the Mississippi River. However, the Mekong River swells annually during the monsoon season to approximately 39,000 m3/s. The Mekong Basin is roughly the size of the country of Chile, hosts over 398 languages, contains important cultural and archaeological sites, and is among the most biodiverse regions of the world.

The Mekong River Commission amplifies in “The Flow of the Mekong” (PDF):

By any set of measures, such as length, mean annual flow, the diversity of its plant and animal life or the size and diversity of the aquatic resources, the Mekong is one of the world’s great river systems. The livelihoods of 40 million of the basin’s inhabitants in some way involve fishing, and the tremendous power of its tributaries provides the economies of countries that share the basin income through the development of large-scale hydropower projects.

Again, the Mekong’s key feature (“swells annually”) is the “flood pulse”:

Many of these water resources stem from the river’s regular ‘flood-pulse’ hydrological regime. This means that the seasonal pattern of flood and recession are predictable even though their magnitude and extent can vary significantly from year to year. The rich animal and plant life that comprise the river’s diverse ecosystems have evolved in tune with the seasonal hydrological cycle, as have the societies and cultures of the people who live beside it.

The MRC provides a chart of the flood pulse; as you can see, it’s pretty big:

Mekong Wonders provides an aerial view of the flood pulse over several years:

The flood pulse causes the extraordinary and unique reversal of flow in Tonle Sap, the enormous lake where the floating village (above) was located. Mekong Wonders once more:

The flood pulse is the beating heart of the lower Mekong River and its tributaries. The flood pulse is a seasonal pattern that occurs in response to monsoonal rains. Every year during the rainy season (June through October) the rivers, wetlands, and fields swell so much that the flow of the Tonle Sap River reverses and increases the size of the Tonle Sap Lake by 6 times its dry season size. Even at its dry season size (2,700 km2), the Tonle Sap Lake is the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia. The immense aquatic productivity that results from this globally-unique flood pulse is due to the diversity of land cover types and the presence of a unique freshwater mangrove belt known as the flooded forest that surrounds the Tonle Sap Lake. The annual cycle of flooding with its influxes of sediment and nutrients, combined with the habitat of the flooded forest, provides optimal conditions for the rearing of young fish. The flood pulse sustains the ecosystem and drives this enormously productive and diverse fishery that feeds 60 million people.

This is such a wondrous system that I probably spent too much time on it! With that, let us turn to geopolitics. You will have noted that this wondrous system is dependent on the Mekong’s seasonal flow. Today, that flow has two charactertics. First, China controls the Mekong’s headwaters, which originate, together with the Irrawaddy and the Saleween, in the Tibetan plateau[2] controlled by China:

Second, the Mekong is increasingly dammed, both within China, or further downstead in Cambodia and Laos, countries aligned with China. From the Stimson Center, to which we will return:

(This map gives only the main dams; the Mekong Dams Observatory tracks 805 dams in the region, of which 212 are “commissioned power dams.”)

The resulting power relation — that China can turn off the taps — is well expressed in the following two cartoons from the region:

And more subtly:

Now, dams as such interfere with the Mekong’s flow, especially the flood pulse. From National Geographic, “Harnessing the Mekong or Killing It?,” 2015:

Boontom is the leader of Ban Pak Ing, a scattering of cinder block houses and unpaved streets that reach from the precipitous west bank of the Mekong toward a quiet, well-cared-for Buddhist temple. Twenty years ago, like many of his neighbors, Boontom caught fish for a living. But as China completed one, then two, and then seven dams upstream, the few hundred residents of Ban Pak Ing saw the Mekong change. The sudden fluctuations in water levels interfere with fish migration and spawning. Though the village has protected local spawning grounds, there are no longer enough fish to go around….

Until 2012 another village lay immediately downstream of the dam site. In 2013 its residents were settling into a grid of new cinder-block-and-wood houses well out of the river canyon. There, optimism was scarce. Residents said the money and land promised by the dam company as compensation for relocating were inadequate and slow in coming. Many were feeling the unfamiliar bite of the cash economy. “In the old village you didn’t make much money, but you could eat the rice you grew,” said a young woman with two children. “Here you can make money every day, but every day you have to spend more than you make.”

(That’s not a bug. It’s a feature.) However, the accusation made by the cartoons is more specific: It is that China used its dams deliberately to choke off the water supply to those downstream. And here we enter the realm of State Department Propaganda (and it certainly would have been easier if I had run across this link first. From the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

The image promoted by Minister Wang was one of a benevolent China willing to help its neighbors during a time of hardship. A new study funded by the U.S. State Department paints a less rosy picture—one in which Chinese dams, and not mother nature, were the main culprit behind dwindling water levels. The report found that the Mekong’s upper basin in China actually received above-average precipitation in 2019. Had the Mekong’s flow not been obstructed by Chinese dams, areas along the Thai-Lao border would have experienced slightly higher-than-usual water levels.

A study “funded by the U.S. State Department”, eh? It’s from Eyes on Earth, “Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded Conditions), and published on April 10, 2020. Here is material from the Executive Summary (for which the PDF, whether out of cyncism or indifference, is images only, so text cannot be copied or searched). First excerpt (proprietary software, eh?):

Exactly as Boontom noticed, in 2015.

Second excerpt, which is the one that says, in very academic language, that China did indeed turn off the taps:

The study subseqently got play at the Stimson Center, Foreign Policy[3], The Diplomat, Al Jazeera, and the New York Times, to name a few. And the study’s conclusion is certainly plausible; all you have to do is look at a map and think about power relations. But is the study true?

At best, that remains to be seen. From Tarek Ketelsen, Timo Räsänen, and John Sawdon[4], “Did China turn off the Lower Mekong? Why data matters for cooperation“:

The Eyes on Earth study uses satellite data to provide information on flow in the Lancang River, China’s name for their stretch of the Mekong. The analysis uses microwave imager data to develop a “wetness index”, which estimates the amount of water in the river catchment. Statistical analysis is then used to establish a relationship between the “wetness” of the catchment and monthly water levels at Chiang Saen station.

Concerns regarding the study have been expressed including by the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS), academics, as well by us at AMPERES.

First, a simple regression model may not adequately capture the complex hydrological processes (e.g. groundwater dynamics) of the Lancang River. Second, the use of water level data alone does not give understanding of the water volumes flowing in the river or water volumes stored and released by the reservoirs.

Third, the study also discusses water level and flow volumes interchangeably, which they should not be. Fourth, monthly water level data is too coarse to reflect hydropower operations occurring over much shorter time scales. Fifth, water flows in the Mekong are highly variable, and the baseline used in the study is too short to allow the reliable identification of a relationship between water levels in the river and wetness in the upstream catchment.

Finally, the study makes almost no reference to peer-reviewed literature on the Mekong system from the past 15-20 years, nor any evidence of the study having undergone a peer-review process – two critical safeguards in the scientific process.

(Everybody seems to want cooperation in the Mekong, but nobody seems to have any idea how to achieve it.)


Despite these concerns, the main technical findings of the Eyes on Earth study are however consistent with the prevailing scientific understanding.

The answer lies in how the study has been used as evidence for a simplified narrative that blames China for the drought. With the Eyes on Earth study in hand, the Stimson Center claims that drought in the Lower Mekong was the direct result of Chinese water management policy, that China is hoarding water.

The Stimson Center concluded that although the Lancang catchment received an above average amount of rain and snowmelt, nearly all the water remained trapped behind China’s dams. This contradicts earlier research, indeed our calculations suggest that the whole cascade of 11 dams could only store around 35-37% of wet season flow in an average year, even less during a year with above average water availability.

The political conclusions drawn and widely disseminated by the Stimson Center are not substantiated by the Eyes on Earth study. These claims represent a politicisation of data. One that risks undermining the integrity of efforts by a community of researchers to build, over decades, a credible evidence base on the functioning of the Mekong system.

And that is where the controversy stands, so I will leave it behind for now. However, the geography is what it is; and the power relations are what they are, so one would expect this issue to crop up once again.


The water wars in Southeast Asia show no prospect of getting any easier, and are unlikely to, as long as water is conceived of as the World Wildlife Foundation concieves of it:

Water is liquid capital and it flows through the economy just as much as it does through our rivers and lakes,” says Stuart Orr, Leader of the WWF Water Practice. “Water underpins our agricultural systems, our energy production, manufacturing, ecosystems, food security and our wellbeing as humans.”

And the Eyes on Earth study itself, quoted in the Japan Times:

The authors of the Eye on Earth study argue that “the Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

I wish the National Geographic reporter had given the name of the young lady in Boontom’s village (“you could eat the rice you grew”); I doubt very much whether she would share the WWF’s opinion, or Eyes of Earth’s. Nation-states have not been notably successful at sharing capital, have they? So I fear for the region, besides the beauty of the river.


[1] Here from the cutting room floor is an article on the restoration of mangrove forests in the Mekong Delta.

[2] Hence dependent on Tibetan glaciers, which was to be one climate change aspect of the post as originally conceived.

[3] Headline: “Science Shows Chinese Dams Are Devastating the Mekong.” If I hear “science” one more time on any politicized matter, I’m gonna start getting cynical. I’m for science. But science, as any scientist will tell you, must be tested, and not used as an argument from authority.

[4] All from AMPERES (Australia Mekong Partnership for Environmental Resources and Energy Systems), so far as I can tell not funded by China, although they have business interests in the Mekong area. More information from China hands in the commentariat welcome.

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