Thursday, August 19, 2010

Future design of the Mekong region

Mekong River is home to more giant fishes* than any other river on Earth! The Greater Mekong covers China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam with a flamboyant and magnificent bio diversity.

Established in a natural coherent region, this vast landscape runs from the Tibetan Plateau in China to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The region's partners leaders meet today in Hanoi to shape the future of this giant which drains an area of 795,000 km2. The Mekong is 4,300 km long. If her angers are feared, her waters are treasures for bordering countries, and sources of confrontations. Time has come to fix the Great "River Khong".

The Mekong region's bio-diversity is ranked as a top-five most threatened hotspot by Conservation International. The WWF cites accelerating economic development, population growth and increased consumption patterns as primary causes, including agricultural deforestation, logging and illegal timber trade, wildlife trade, overfishing, dam and road construction, and mining. The WWF also states that the region is particularly vulnerable to global climate change.

Greater Mekong region

"Despite its vast size and immense biological diversity, the Greater Mekong is a confusing political and economic region that is fraught with conservation challenges to preserve the estimated five per cent of landscapes left intact."

The habitat loss, considerable unsuitable infrastructure developments, and unsustainable and illegal natural resource use are described by WWF as the underlying threats. All of which are compounded by the ever ominous climate change, which is reportedly causing more extreme climate events and altering the natural cycles of the region, including the timings of migrations and flowering events.

Mekong River seen from Thailand. Myanmar on the left and Laos on the right

While the media talk about an apparent competition between China and the United States in Southeast Asia, the region has been more apparent recently and major powers test each other from territorial conflicts in the South China Sea and Greater Mekong areas, to lending a hand to ASEAN members to develop nuclear plans. No idea or concept of integration as in Europe in this part of the world. Just the word confrontation and ill development by a forced consummation by inhabitants seem to be the rule of the game.

More serious for South East Asia in the next decade is how to improve the Mekong river area infrastructure, and business environment, better organize transnational transactions, and protect their social environment?

This is one of the issue that representatives from Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, as well as ADB officials discuss since yesterday in Hanoi, Vietnam, they'll have to agree on plans to improve transport and commercial activities in the "Greater Mekong area" in the post world financial crisis following the American sub-prime and Lehman bank collapse crisis era.

China's upstream dams are becoming a political issue when a severe drought happens. Several non governmental organizations blame China for exacerbating the drought by controlling the river's flow. China refuted the accusations, providing data on its dams' intake and outflow during the period, but it has yet to devise a transparent system by which South-East Asia is kept appraised of its upriver activities.

China has already built four hydropower dams on the upper Mekong River in Yunnan province and plans another four, despite the unknown impact on downstream nations Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. With China's cascade of dams built, they could halt up to 70 per cent of the silt that is normally carried by the river to the lower Mekong countries, depriving them of nutrients according to quoting "US-based Stimson Centre".

When talking about the drought ravaging the Lancang (the name for the upper stretch of Mekong River in China)-Mekong basin, Song said China is a victim, too. "Now there are more than 23 million people short of drinking water in the five provinces of southwest China," he said, adding that China has been exchanging information with the lower Mekong countries in an effort to fight the drought jointly.

"For example, as an emergency measure, China has been, since March 22, providing the MRC the data from the hydrological stations at Yunjinghong and Man'an on a weekly basis, including water level, volume, and precipitation. All these information played a great role in the drought-relief work of the countries." He also mentioned that China as a Dialogue Partner has taken part in 14 dialogues with the MRC since 1996, and its sharing of data with MRC on rainfall and water level of Yunjinghong and Man' an stations during every year's flood season can be tracked back to 2003. In China Daily

No other report has yet been establishing the truth about this grave ecological concern. But it is said that dams built on the Lower Mekong would have an even greater impact on food security. The Mekong, which flows from the Tibetan plateau to southern Vietnam, rivals the Amazon in terms of the quantity of fish and aquaculture, and feeds and employs up to 60 million people in the region. Dams in southern Laos and Cambodia would also have an immediate impact on the migratory patterns of fisheries. Other issues have to be addressed such as the long-delayed establishment of a special economic zone on Chiang Rai's border with Burma.

I often cross this border bridge on the Thailand-Burmese border at MAE SAI, in front Burma, behind me, Thailand.

Government officials and tourism and industry representatives gathered in Chiang Rai's Mae Sai district last week and asked that the project be dusted off. They were discussing a 2010-2012 development plan for the northern border provinces. The group urged the government to create the SEZ, which is expected to spur commerce and trade in nearby Phrae, Nan and Phayao. Viroon Kumpiro, president of the Chiang Rai Chamber of Commerce (CCC), said the government should focus on building up the social and economic sectors rather than worrying too much about the anti-government red shirts, many of whom are active in the northern provinces.


Since 1992, these six GMS countries have joined a comprehensive programme on various areas of economic co-operation, including transport, energy, telecommunications, and human resources development with support from ADB and other partners such as Japan who made several projects of cooperation already.

The General Director of the ADB’s Southeast Asian Department, Kunio Senga said in one generation, Mekong region countries have turned from mutual disagreement to economic cooperation and achieved significant results in poverty reduction.

As a regional bank, ADB helps to promote cooperation among GMS countries through building roads, ports, railways, electric generation equipment, sanitation services and safe water according to international standards. ADB also supports the development of “soft areas”, including trade agreements and transport and measures to protect the environment, safe energy solutions, and efforts to deal with climate change.


The first European to encounter the Mekong was the Portuguese Antonio de Faria in 1540; a European map of 1563 depicts the river, although even by then little was known of the river upstream of the delta. European interest was sporadic: the Spaniards and Portuguese mounted some missionary and trade expeditions, while the Dutch Gerrit van Wuysthoff led an expedition up the river as far as Vientiane in 1641–42.

France took a serious interest in the region in the mid-19th century, capturing Saigon in 1861, and establishing a protectorate over Cambodia in 1863. The first systematic exploration began with the French Mekong Expedition led by Ernest Doudard de Lagrée and Francis Garnier, which ascended the river from its mouth to Yunnan between 1866 to 1868. Their chief finding was that the Mekong had too many falls and rapids to ever be useful for navigation. The river's source was located by Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov in 1900.

From 1893, France extended control of the river into Laos, establishing French Indochina by the first decade of the 20th century. This lasted until the First and Second Indochina Wars ended French and American involvement in the region began.

After the Vietnam War, the tensions between the U.S.-backed Thai government and the new Communist governments in the other countries prevented cooperation on use of the river.

* This is a gigantic Mekong giant catfish. In 2005, a colossal 2.7m, 293kg sized specimen was caught in northern Thailand and was recorded as the largest freshwater catch.

Sources: Bangkok post, news agencies, VoV, CHina Daily,, Wikipedia, WWF, ADB, Reporter's notes.

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