Critical Analysis: China Continues Developing Hydropower Dams Along the Mekong River

The Dachaoshan Dam on the Lancang or Mekong River in Yunnan Province, southern China. (Atlantic Sentinel)
The Dachaoshan Dam on the Lancang or Mekong River in Yunnan Province, southern China. (Atlantic Sentinel)
The Dachaoshan Dam on the Lancang or Mekong River in Yunnan Province, southern China. (Atlantic Sentinel)

China recently announced that its Nuozhadu Dam, the largest dam on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, has begun generating electricity.  The Nuozhadu Dam joins four other Chinese dams along the Upper Mekong River, all commissioned to help China double its overall hydropower capacity to 300 gigawatts by 2020.  The Nuozhadu itself will eventually produce 24,000 gigawatts of electricity per year.

China is not alone in pushing for hydropower projects along the river.  Amongst the Mekong states, there are more than 130 hydropower projects “either operating or projected for the river and its tributaries.”  However, environmental experts warn that the proliferation of dams along the Mekong threatens the river’s ecosystem.  According to studies by the Stimson Center, a Washington think tank, hydropower projects along the Mekong “are already altering the river’s hydrology and impeding the flow of nutrient-rich silt that sustains soil productivity, nurtures fisheries and keeps the sea at bay in the Mekong Delta.”  As the largest inland fishery in the world, environmental harm to the river could prove devastating.

The unsustainable exploitation of the river is also generating political strain.  As water resources become increasingly important to powering the region, conflicts may arise over access and use of the river.  Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang recently expressed this concern: “[t]ensions over water resources are threatening economic growth in many countries and presenting a source of conflict especially given the efforts of all countries to step up economic development.”

In turn, the Mekong Delta faces a crisis: on one side there exists a demand for energy to fuel developing economies; on the other, a plea to stem overexploitation and prevent devastation to both the physical river and its ecosystem.  Surprisingly, the countries along the Mekong River have already put together a modern watercourse treaty to facilitate the river’s sustainable development: the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin.  The Mekong Agreement is impressive in its incorporation of the guiding principles of international water law, including “cooperation.”  However, China continues to exclude itself from this agreement.

The sustainable development of the Mekong River will only be possible through improved cooperation.  China’s absence – and ongoing, unrestricted development of hydropower – undermines the treaty’s effectiveness, thereby threatening the Mekong River, its ecosystem, and the other countries depending upon it.

 Frank Lawson is a 4LE and Board Member on the Denver Journal of International Law and Policy.