Written by Pichamon Yeophantong.

In late 2013, controversy over China’s dams on the upper stretches of the Mekong River—otherwise known as the Lancang Jiang—flared up once again. Disbelief quickly spread among the communities of the Lower Mekong Basin when an acute peak in water levels during December resulted in massive flooding in parts of northern Thailand and Laos. Faced with the sudden onslaught of the so-called ‘Mekong River tsunami’, families living along the banks of the Mekong in the Thai districts of Chiang Saen, Chiang Khan and Khong Chiem watched as the river’s muddy waters carried away their crops, boats and with them, their livelihoods—all within a matter of hours.

For locals who had never witnessed such an occurrence before, China’s upstream cascade of seven hydropower dams on the Lancang was most likely to blame.

Building large dams has been a long-standing policy preoccupation of the Chinese government and, more specifically, of the Yunnan provincial government. As the ‘upstream superpower’within the region, there are at least 19 international rivers that flow through Chinese territory. This includes the Lancang-Mekong River that originates from the Tibetan Plateau, flowing through the high gorges of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province and the five countries of the Mekong region (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam), before emptying into the South China Sea.

The Lancang-Mekong is known as one of the least developed river systems in the world. Downstream, the Mekong River—often dubbed the region’s ‘lifeblood’—boasts a concentration of biodiversity that features around 1,700 fish species, with the Mekong River Basin being home to an estimated 70 million people.

Upstream, the Lancang is China’s sixth longest river with a watershed populated by almost five million people. The river is officially estimated to contribute 13 percent to the Mekong’s flow (this number is contested, however), and holds a hydropower potential of approximately 30,000 megawatts (MW). China’s Lancang cascade was originally slated to include at least eight dams on the river’s mainstream, which would harness the river’s hydropower capacity to produce around 15,700MW of electricity, equivalent to about 70% of the combined capacity of the highly-controversial Three Gorges dam.

Plans to dam the ecologically-diverse Lancang for the sake of generating electricity to power China’s thriving population and modernising industries have since stoked sustained local disapprobation and opposition to the dams, especially among downstream riparian communities.

Disasters such as the 2008 Great Mekong Floods, which partially inundated the Lao capital of Vientiane as well as several of Thailand’s northern provinces, and the severe drought in 2010 which saw boats stranded mid-river, have adversely affected local livelihoods that depend upon a free-flowing Mekong’s nutrient-rich waters and riverine ecosystems. Despite China and the Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) repeated assurances that these erratic fluctuations in the Mekong’s waters were caused by abnormal climatic conditions, this has not completely dispelled popular misgivings that the Lancang dams—specifically, the opening and closing of the dams’ sluice gates—had contributed to the severity of these occurrences.

Civil society coalitions and organizations like the Bangkok-based Save the Mekong coalition and TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance) have actively challenged the ‘development’ rationale behind the dam-building spree in Yunnan Province. Aside from highlighting the endemic lack of transparency and public participation in the Chinese decision-making process, they also point to how electricity generated by these dams do little to contribute to China’s nor regional development.

While climate change, rapid urban development and poor governance, among other factors, have contributed to a growing sense of water insecurity within the Mekong region, China’s ambitious hydropower expansion within and beyond its borders is frequently spotlighted as one of the most serious threats to water security downstream and to regional stability, more broadly. Indeed, there appears to be no end to observers who foresee the Lancang-Mekong River becoming a major source of regional conflict—if not the site of full-fledged water wars—in the coming years.

Such fears of outright conflict, however, are unnecessarily alarmist.

My point is not that water-sharing problems between China and its downstream neighbors do not pose a sizable challenge to the region; they do and will likely remain a stumbling block for regional confidence-building efforts in the long-term. But we should not conflate regional tension with actual conflict, especially when doing so risks giving rise to a fatalistic outlook that masks opportunities for cooperation.

There are three further reasons why water wars or conflicts, beyond the occasional diplomatic confrontation and ‘public shaming’ of Chinese dam-building activities by certain Mekong governments and civil society activists, are unlikely to happen over the Lancang-Mekong’s water resources. First, studies have shown how instances of cooperation historically outnumber those of conflict on international waterways, with there being very little evidence to support the notion of water wars. In the Lancang-Mekong case, deepening economic interdependence and socio-political ties between the countries of mainland Southeast Asia and its northern neighbour have helped to ensure that ardent opposition to Chinese Lancang dams are primarily concentrated at local levels, with most Mekong governments still wary of openly criticising Chinese dam-building. Certainly, if tensions were allowed to escalate into a full-blown conflict, governments on both sides would stand to lose considerably.

Second, irrespective of one’s opinion of the MRC and its effectiveness as the main intergovernmental organisation responsible for managing resources in the Lower Mekong Basin, the organisation has assumed a noteworthy role in mediating at the intergovernmental level between sides. Observers have, of course, frequently lamented the MRC’s failure to persuade China to become a full member (since 1997 China has been a ‘joint dialogue partner’). But at least it serves as an official channel for dialogue.

Third, as I argued in a recent paper in Asian Survey, the insecurities caused by China’s Lancang cascade have given rise to a nascent transnational advocacy network within the region. While one may think that conflict is most likely to arise from the ongoing campaigns staged by this ‘Mekong civil society’, it is more the case that they act as a ‘safety valve’ that alerts China, Hydrolancang (Huaneng Lancang River Hydropower Corporation) as well as Mekong governments to local discontent before the situation devolves into actual conflict.

Here, network activists—ranging from grassroots activist groups as well as transnational NGOs like International Rivers and World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF)—play a vital role in pressuring the Chinese government and the main dam builder involved, Hydrolancang, to account for the Yunnan cascade’s social and environmental consequences, and in so doing, to sensitising them to the demands of ‘good neighbourliness’ and corporate responsibility.

2013 was the United Nations’ International Year of Water Cooperation. In line with the UN’s message of turning water into an ‘instrument of peace’, it is imperative that relevant stakeholders in the Lancang-Mekong River issue—whether these be the Chinese and Mekong governments, civil society, or local communities—focus on not only what China is doing wrong, but also what it might be doing right.

As a result of downstream public pressure, Vice-Foreign Minister Song Tao announced at the inaugural MRC Summit in 2010 China’s decision to cancel the Mengsong dam, the last in the cascade, due to concerns that the dam will have a negative impact on fish migration. A year later, a memorandum of understanding was signed between the WWF-China Program and Hydrolancang to launch a trial HSAP (Hydropower Sustainability Assessment Protocol) assessment—the first in China—on the Jinghong and later Nuozhadu dams.

Taken together, these developments open up alternative avenues for dialogue and more ‘bottom-up’ engagement, including Track-II collaborations with universities and research institutes, which can help to push China up the learning curve vis-à-vis its responsibilities as both a regional and upstream superpower.

Pichamon Yeophantong is Lecturer in International Relations and Development at the University of New South Wales, ASEAN-Canada Senior Fellow at the Non-Traditional Security Studies Centre, Nanyang Technological University, and Research Associate at the Global Economic Governance Programme, Oxford University. Image credit: CC by Nathan Nelson/Flickr.