The Mekong, South East Asia’s most important river, has for millennia supported the rise and fall of empires and is responsible for the livelihood of over 65 million people who live directly on its riverbanks, relying on the river for food, accommodation and employment. The river hosts a unique and significant ecological system, with some of the world’s highest diversity of fish and snails.

Over the last decade, the Mekong region has faced growing challenges, including a steady increase in hydropower projects, as a result of rapid economic development of the riparian states, comprising Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The need for cheap and renewable energy is rising to meet increasing electricity demands in the region, volatile prices in international energy markets and concerns over carbon emissions.

And climate change is increasingly having an effect, visible in the currently dangerous low levels on the Mekong following the devastating 2019 drought which affected downstream countries, especially Vietnam’s rice fields and Cambodia’s fisheries.

To date, China has built 11 dams on the Lancang River, and a further 11 mainstream dams in the lower Mekong and 120 dams in the tributaries are under construction or being planned. While some observers argue that the Chinese held back more water than ever in 2019, the low levels of water in recent years are likely cumulative effects of climate change, El Niño weather systems, existing hydropower dams, increases in water demand and other activities such as sand dredging – all of which are irrevocably changing the river.

Please click here to read the full “Duelling diplomacy over Southeast Asia’s most important river” article originally published at The Interpreter, written by Griffith Asia Institute, Researcher, Dr. Andrea Haefner.