Regional Geopolitics Polluting Environmental Science


By Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan, Asian Century Philippines Institute for Strategic Studies

If you are wondering why Bongbong Marcos was near to waxing poetic about climate change at the ASEAN summit in Indonesia, you would now realize how he fits a role as the next US poster boy of the America Competes Act in the half-a-billion dollar appropriation to the Agency for Global Media to demonize China.

This time, however, the venue of choice using him as megaphone is not the South China Seas, but Indochina.

The Mekong is the world’s seventh largest river in terms of discharge, and ranks tenth in terms of length. It originates in China, and then flows 4,200 km through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.

According to a 2003 study by Hudson-Rodd & Shaw, the Mekong River Basin is often described as the “hydrologic backbone” or “current of life” of mainland Southeast Asia, because it is exceptionally rich in natural resources, and is vital in supporting the livelihood of more than 70 million people.

Climate change is likely to further increase competition for water resources.

Cronin and Hamlin noted in 2010 that shifts in rainfall patterns and longer droughts are already observable in the region, which could contribute to shortfalls in agricultural production. The Mekong delta in southern Vietnam is particularly threatened by climate change, with expected impacts including a rise in average temperatures, more severe storms, wetter wet seasons, and drier dry seasons.

In 2016, the Economist reported climate-related increases in weeds and pests, as well as salt water intrusion into agricultural areas due to sea level rise, could hamper rice production in the delta, thereby threatening local livelihoods dependent on farming.

Build-up of 28 years

On its third decade, the Mekong basin is undergoing enormous expansion of dam-building for hydropower generation, leading to diplomatic tensions as countries downstream of the dams fear the negative impacts they may bring about, from greater flooding to seasonal lack of water.

The first dam of the Upper Mekong (called the Lancang in China) was completed in 1995. Today, seven hydro-power projects have already been constructed, and the government apparently has plans for 21 more dams.

Radio Free Asia, a United States government-funded private non-profit corporation, broadcast that the lower riparian states (Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam) have criticized the Chinese hydro-power push, and have tried to warn China about the conflict potential of its dams and the adverse effects they were already experiencing in terms of water shortages, flow alterations, sediment trapping, habitat destruction, and devastation of important agricultural areas and fisheries resulting from Chinese damming of the Upper Mekong.

Xinhua, however, said according to the official Chinese position, the adverse downstream effects of its hydro-power projects are negligible, given that only a small percentage of the Mekong’s total flow originates in China.

Completed in 2010, the 292-meter Xiaowan Dam is the fourth tallest in the world, supplying power to cities and industries on China’s booming south coast. Building it displaced more than 38,000 people.

The runoff of the Lancang River only accounts for 13% of the total water volume of the Mekong River, obviously manifesting it has very limited impact on the river’s overall water volume.

On the contrary, it is argued, the construction of large dams on the Upper Mekong will benefit downstream users in terms of hydro-electricity generation and flood control, and efforts are being made to protect the river’s ecosystems and fisheries.

Apart from the Lancang dam cascade in China, the Mekong mainstream so far remains undammed.

Lower Mekong woes

However, rapid changes are now underway within the Lower Mekong Basin.

As the economic rise of Southeast Asian countries has dramatically increased their energy needs harnessing the Mekong waters for hydro-power generation has become an attractive solution to meet growing energy and economic development demands.

Öjendal & Jensen disclosed in 2012 that Cambodia has revealed plans for two mainstream dams, and Laos for up to nine.

Sithirith Mak, Senior Research Fellow and Head of the Environmental Unit at the Cambodia Development Resources Institute, insisted the threats from hydropower dams to the environment are real, specifically citing Tonle Sap Lake, which is the largest and most significant wetland biosphere of the Mekong River Basin, that has been damaged by the impacts of upstream hydropower dams.

This biodiverse water body sustains more than 200 fish species and contributes to the health and prosperity of over 15 million Cambodians relying on 2/3 of its inland fish catch.

Laos’ Xayaburi Dam, opened in 2019

“Hydrological data showed that the pattern of annual reverse flows from the Mekong river into the lake were relatively consistent every year until 2019 when the surging tide into Tonle Sap came three months late and with a significantly smaller volume of total reverse flow, resulting in rapid depletion of fish stocks in the lake,” he said.

Sithirith said the annual reverse flow at Tonle Sap Lake still fluctuates unseasonably. This hydrological anomaly coincided with Xayaburi Dam commencing operation the same year. It is the first hydropower dam project to be built on the lower reaches of the Mekong River in Laos.

Saying the collapsing fisheries inevitably sent people to lose their incomes and traditional livelihoods as the Cambodian government does not have capacity to efficiently mitigate and respond to these emerging environmental and socioeconomic problems, he urged the government to rethink the country’s energy development plan by promoting clean renewable energy such as solar energy and moving away from hydropower.

MRC limitations

What is aggravating uncertainties in the overall scenario is the limited effectiveness of the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) is a marked resistance among the riparian states to cede any sovereignty to the MRC over the shared resources in the basin. He Commission also lacks enforcement powers.

China’s reluctance to join as a full member but remain as a dialogue partner which does not compel it to disclose information.

Despite its absence from the MRC, however, China seems to be changing its approach towards downstream countries, and has engaged in more solid information-sharing over the past decade. (Earle et al., 2015, 76).

China has also participated in the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion program and the ASEAN Mekong Basin Development Cooperation. These two initiatives, launched in the 1990s, focus on basin-wide development and integration (Onishi, 2008).

In 2010, a tour of dams in China was organized for Lower Mekong government officials and the MRC Secretariat (MRC, 2010).

In April 2015, China proposed a “Mekong River community of common destiny,” to be established among all the riparian states (China Daily, 2015). Such a community would stand in direct competition with the MRC. The fact that China has proposed an alternative governance mechanism suggests that it hopes to buffer MRC inadequacy in meeting the region’s needs.

While China also offers logistical and financial assistance for dam construction on the Lower Mekong River, China and Thailand have long enjoyed good relations, and China has apparently succeeded in “building goodwill in Laos and Cambodia with massive infrastructure investments” (The Economist, 2016), with riparians being extremely dependent on China.

The gringo wedge

Actually, it was originally the United States, until its disengagement in 1975, that planted geopolitical imaginings that drove the proliferation of large dams. The American poured millions of dollars over a decade of studies by American bureau engineers for its Pa Mong dam project that was never built.

The US long neglected the Mekong River countries due to their smaller economies. But China has been able to downstream factories among them.

However, since Barack Obama’s Asia Pivot in 2010. the United States’ presence in Southeast Asia has grown. The US has bluntly targeted China maliciously, accusing it of causing droughts in the region, to the point of absurdity, encouraging drug and weapons trafficking in the region.

Chinese Premier Li Kejiang in his speech on the Third Leaders Meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation said the US has ramped up disinformation against the collaborative mechanism promoted by China since 2016, politicizing the hype as the “second South China Sea” dispute.

The chief American attack dog is the Stimson Center Southeast Asia, yet another Washington DC think-tank funded by USAID. Its program director Brian Eyler has cast the intrigue that Laos has gone on fast track “on becoming a pseudo-province of China”.

The Americans, as usual, provides a wedge among Mekong stake holders. Last month, MRC-Mekong delegates were treated in Hawaii and California to “exchange best practices” on water and river management involving changing river flow regime, sediment flow, salinity intrusion, plastic pollution, and flood and drought.

These are no rocket science to me. Nature and our environment change. As they change, so does climate. Climate change is the immediate cause of disasters. The underlying cause is the forever mutable and evolving planet earth.

#Climatechange #TheEconomist                                                                                                                #Radio Free Asia
#Barack Obama

<strong>Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan</strong>
Adolfo Quizon Paglinawan

is the anchor of Ang Maestro – the Unfinished Revolution at Radyo Pilipinas1, co-host of Opinyon Ngayon at Golden Nation Network Television, a political analyst, and author of books. His third book, The Poverty of Power will soon be off-the-press. It is a historiography of controversial issues of spanning 36 years leading to the Demise of the Edsa Revolution and the Rise of the Philippine Phoenix. Paglinawan’s past best sellers have been A Problem for Every Solution (2015), a characterization of factors affecting Philippine-China relations, and No Vaccine for a Virus called Racism (2020) a survey of international news attempting to tracing its origins. These important achievements earned for him to be named one of the 2021 international laureates for the Awards for the Promotion of Philippine-China Understanding. Ado, as he called for short, was a former press attaché and spokesman of the Philippine Embassy in Washington DC and the Philippines’ Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York. Facebook





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