The Mekong River Commission must not just Monitor the River’s Collapse.

Hydropower dam on the Mekong river (WWF)

The Mekong river is dying. Everyone knows it — but it is not reflected in the agenda of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) gathering its members and development partners today for its 27th Council meeting.

Just ask the fishing communities around Tonle Sap who’ve seen their catches collapse as water levels in the river fall to historic lows. Or families in the delta who’ve watched their lands and livelihoods crumble as the riverbanks erode. And the scientific evidence is just as alarming. Indeed, the facts are as clear as stretches of the Mekong were recently: stretches that should always be murky and muddy with sediment.

The obvious conclusion is that the current model for sharing the Mekong river’s resources is very far from sustainable — and that urgent action is needed to chart a new course for the river, which will underpin the region’s sustainable development rather than undermine it. But a review of the agenda for today’s meeting in Vientiane, which WWF was invited to attend, and the actions under the proposed 2021–2030 Basin Development Strategy makes me think that the MRC is talking about another river entirely.

Despite the fact that the MRC’s own 2018 State of the Basin report paints a very worrying picture of the current ‘health’ of the Mekong. The flagship report acknowledges that recent socio-economic developments were achieved at “considerable cost to the environment”. It concludes that all three strategic environment indicators — water flow in the mainstem, water quality and sediment conditions, and status of environmental assets — are in the red. Furthermore, it points to the shocking decline in freshwater species, with the iconic Mekong Giant Catfish and population of Irrawaddy river dolphins among a dozen species on the critically endangered list — just one small step from extinction.

© naturepl.com / Roland Seitre / WWF. Only 89 river dolphins remain in the Mekong

If that were not enough, the report’s foreword issues an unmistakable warning. “Key areas of concern that require our specific attention are the seemingly permanent modification of mainstream flow regime, the substantial reduction in sediment flows due to sediment trapping, the continuing loss of wetlands, the deterioration of riverine habitats and the growing pressures on capture fisheries.”

Yet the MRC Council is meeting to discuss additional monitoring as if the river’s symptoms and sickness are not readily apparent to all — and to discuss yet more hydropower projects on the main river, which will further weaken the resilience of the river.

The people of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam who rely on the Lower Mekong are not looking to the MRC to conduct additional assessments. They need urgent action to enhance the health of the river, which is the foundation of their societies and economies.

They need a new development plan to sustainably utilize and share the river’s resources that will reverse the collapse in its freshwater fisheries — the most productive in the world and the most sustainable way of producing animal protein for tens of millions of people, who are already facing a severe burden due to the Covid-19 pandemic. They need a strategic approach to the river that invests in building with nature to build the basin’s resilience to cope with the increasing number of extreme droughts and floods, which are destroying lives and livelihoods and disrupting economic growth. They need a collaborative solution to the vast reduction in sediment flow in the lower stretches of the Mekong, which had led to the uncontrollable erosion of its banks, and contributed to the sinking and shrinking of its delta.

© Nicolas Axelrod / Ruom / WWF-Greater Mekong. The Mekong currently boasts the world’s largest freshwater fisheries

They need a moratorium on all new hydropower dams on the mainstem of the Mekong — something Cambodia announced earlier this year — with funds being diverted into sustainable renewables, like solar and wind. Instead, the Council meeting is set to discuss procedures to green a 6th hydropower dam on the mainstem of the lower Mekong, while merely seeking updates on the other poorly-planned projects that are already underway. Together, these projects threaten to doom the river.

Sadly, it seems as if the MRC is stuck with the mindset of when it was formed — back in the 20th century. But the best development pathway for the Mekong in light of the twin crises of climate change and nature loss is not more mega-hydropower dams. The renewable revolution — powered by the plunging price of solar and wind generation and storage technologies — means we can meet our global climate and energy goals without damming any more of our remaining free flowing rivers, including the lower Mekong. Countries as diverse as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia and Zambia have seen the light. It is time the MRC and its development partners did too.

In particular, solar offers Mekong countries the chance to build back better from the Covid-19 pandemic. It is the best all round solution: one that is low-cost, low-carbon, and low-conflict with the river and communities and will generate power and electrify communities quicker and cheaper than hydropower. By keeping the Mekong free flowing, it will also help to safeguard the river’s remaining fisheries and priceless biodiversity.

Given the escalating crisis, the MRC should be devoting all its resources and political power to rallying Mekong countries behind an emergency plan to restore the health of the river. Instead, it appears to be sticking rigidly to its official mandate and continuing to watch — or rather ‘monitor’ — the disaster unfold.

If it does not champion a new course, history, and the people of the Mekong, will not be kind to the MRC. The Mekong shaped our civilizations, is a symbol of our unity and a solid foundation for a prosperous Southeast Asia. Don’t let it die under our watch.

Solar panels offer a brighter future for the Mekong © Shutterstock / foxbat / WWF

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