Power to Control a River – Hydropower and its Impact on Vietnam

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Image from Icon0.com Mekong River Sunset

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The Eternal Beauty of the Mekong River? 

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For thousands of years, humanity has prayed to the gods of rivers and water. These powerful and life bringing rivers moved through the landscape with an unstoppable force that was far beyond human power and was therefore easily attributed to divinity. Yet now through human ingenuity, those same humans have gained power to control those very rivers, wielding the power that was once only thought to be reserved for the gods. Through incredible engineering projectsgreat hydropower dams have been built that are able to control the very flow of the rivers 

The question is, has humanity used such impressive control with the responsibility and care that wielding such power requires. The answer will probably not surprise you. We are going to take a look at the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to explore this issue further. Let’s first get a brief understanding of the Mekong River and its importance before we dive deeper into the issue that it is facing today.  An area of beauty in which many Vietnamese make thankful use of the opportunities that the river provides.  

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The Mekong River is the longest river in Southeast Asia with a length of around 4.900km. Its springs arise in the Chinese Tibetan Plateau. It is taking its leap through several countries such as China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.While China contains half of the river’s length and calls the river the Lancang, the pursue and intentions of these countries concerning the Mekong River can be as multifaceted as its name given by them. Just to further clarify the importance of the river in this region, it is estimated that 80% of the 65 million people that make the lower Mekong River basin their home depend on the river for their livelihoods.   

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Mekong River Map

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Though as many people depend on the river and its gifts to them, they struggle with the consequences of human incisions on its natural flow. Many regions along the Mekong River do not only face ecological havoc created by the damming of the river, but they struggle with the effects of climate change, deforestation, coastal erosion, and fast-growing cities [1].  


Taking into account the harvested green energy from several dams, do the surpluses of the projects outweigh the overwhelming consequences?  


We are going to look at this dilemma for the Mekong River Delta by explaining Hydro-power dams and their consequences as well as base it on the example of Vietnam and provide facts and truths on the different sides and get back to the question at the end. 

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Godlike Water-Wonders or Megalomaniac Catastrophes 

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Let’s take a closer look at the incredible human engineering projects that have allowed nations to control the very flow of the river. The Mekong Delta in Vietnam has gone through some alarming changes in recent years due to those very engineering projects, threatening all that the river brings to people and life in Vietnam  

Great changes are befalling the Mekong River, which has been called the “heart and soul of South-East Asia” [2]. Most of these changes are caused by none other than those pesky humans that like to play at being God. It is the hydroelectric dams that are causing a lot of changes. Water, the lifeblood of the river, is now purposefully restrained by the builders of those massive Dams. That water then no longer transports the much-needed nutrients to the downstream countries. The farmers can no longer cope without those all-important nutrients and sediments that the river would normally provide, leaving many farms to struggle [3].  

This wonderful documentary shows the effects that hydropower has on communities in the region.  

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The Mekong River originates from the Tibet Plateau in China, a place where many transboundary South and South-East Asian rivers originate. China has been very active in creating many hydroelectric dams so that they can fuel some of their never-ending hunger for energy. Electrical power does not seem to be the only power from the dams that China desires. China will also like the additional geopolitical influence that their control over the water supply garners. China has already built six hydropower dams along the Mekong River and China has plans to construct more in the future [4]. Feeding its energy-hungry industry seems to trump preventing any potential environmental damage for China as well.  

These massive hydropower structures have the purpose of creating electrical energy by converting the kinetic energy of the water. Electricity is produced by letting the water flow through massive turbines in a controlled manner. China has benefited greatly by developing its water resources over the last few decades, benefitting from high mountain valleys and numerous rivers.  They have been able to quadruple their hydropower capacity since the year 2000. This accounts for an impressive half of worldwide growth. Hydropower is no joke with it being responsible for 17% of the worldwide energy generation. China is proud of its hydro capacity and touts its value in making a clean energy transformation [5].

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Vietnam’s Troublesome Position for a Healthy Mekong River 

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Vietnam and especially its Mekong Delta region receive a lot of benefits from the Mekong River. It provides many opportunities like agriculture, fisheries, trade and transport, and even electricity from the Hydropower Dams. The electricity is certainly nice, but hydropower unfortunately is more of a headache than a boon for Vietnam. The international relations in the region are somewhat of a mess due to those very hydropower Dams [6]. 

No other country is impacted by the shifting water levels of the Mekong River quite like Vietnam. The agriculture that depends on the river is under serious threat due to the multiple environmental changes caused by the Hydropower Dams [2]. The trouble is that Vietnam has almost no ability to solve the issues by itself since the control of the hydropower dams is in the clutches of the upstream states, leaving Vietnam to the whims of those countries. China shows little regard for the interests of Vietnam. The Balance of Power in the region is tilting heavily towards China [7]. Vietnam certainly wants to reach an agreement that would mitigate many of its problems but has found that reaching such an agreement is difficult. The livelihood of many Vietnamese that make their living from the river is at risk.  

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Nature and its Species a Blink Away from Disaster 

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The Mekong Delta in Vietnam has some of the most beautiful places in the world and the Delta is brimming with life, housing thousands of species and flora, including many endangered ones. The majority of species can, unfortunately, be found on the red list of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The endangered status of these magnificent creatures only increases the importance of preserving these beautiful environments. Some of the endangered animals in the Mekong Delta are the Indochinese tiger, the Irrawaddy dolphin, the crested Gibbon, the Asian elephant, and the Mekong giant catfish [8].  

The ongoing anthropogenic degradation of the environment around the Mekong River basin in Vietnam has fueled the problem. As the water stream decreases due to the damming, water levels drop and nutrition is lacking in the water. The low water levels of the Mekong River allow rising ocean water to push into the basin, soil saltification occurs. With the saltification, also freshwater fishes are dying. The missing nutrient in the water means no sediment deposit on the river banks and washing away of the riverbed. Those drastic effects leave the environment around the basin crippled and far from its original impressive richness of flora and fauna [9]. 

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Image by Basile Morin from Pixabay; Mekong River Environment

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The Mekong River as the backbone of South-East Asias Economy 

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The importance of the Mekong Delta lies not only in its biodiversity but also in its enormous economic importance for Vietnam.  The Mekong Delta is of vital importance for Vietnam’s Economy. The nutrient-rich soil makes the Delta the biggest producer of Rice and fruit for Vietnam, and the Delta provides lots of fish and aquaculture products. The Delta accounts for an impressive 95% of the country’s rice exports, 65% of Vietnam’s aquaculture exports, 60% of Vietnam’s fish exports, and 70% for the country’s fruit production.  There is an output of 4 million tons of seafood per year. The agricultural industry uses the Delta for the efficient import and export of its products as well. 

The delta is also one of the top three industrial areas of Vietnam, focusing on textiles and garments, renewables, food processing, mechanical engineering, and leather and footwear. Anything that threatens all that economic activity will certainly garner the attention of Vietnam [10].  

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The Growing Energy-Hungry Cities and Industries of Vietnam 

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Due to the immense growth of the economy and the ongoing urbanization and modernization of Vietnam, the demand for energy has outpaced its supply. For that, cheap and green hydro-energy harvested by dams is highly interesting for Vietnam’s government and economy. While Vietnam is limited in building hydro-dams itself as only the Mekong River would be feasible, it can import cheap, green hydro-power from other neighboring countries, especially Laos who strives to become the battery of Southeast Asia [11]. With that, the Vietnamese government is not averse to the possible construction of further dams along the Mekong River, as this would allow energy for a competitive price and fuel the modernization of the country. 

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Image by Hung Trang Hoai from Pixabay; Ho Chi Minh City

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And After the 8th Day, Hydro-Politics Arise 

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Today we talk, in regards to issues over water, about hydro-politics. A number of scholars and decision-makers in the 1980s and 1990s predicted water wars to be a key component in the geopolitics of the 21st century. This held true and today we set water equal to the “new oil”. Water issues and conflicts, such as for the Mekong River, are no new phenomena. Over the history of mankind, many wars have been fought over it, so many that there is a whole water conflict chronology that dates back to 3000BC [12]. You can check out the whole list here: Water Conflict Chronology 

You might be wondering why it is so difficult to reach a solution between Vietnam and the other beneficiaries of the river, but International Relations are complex and often frustrating. Vietnam has certainly tried to reach an agreement with countries that control the hydro-dams like China but have achieved little despite their efforts. They for example created the Mekong River Commission (MRC) together with Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos in order to consult on ways to keep the hydropower and water diversion projects from devastating their ecosystems and industry. The Commission has achieved little, with China refusing full membership status, and pleas have been ignored regarding the building of dams by other members. An approach of Neo-Realism by many countries seems to hold back progress in the region. The Mekong Delta bears the brunt of the political games [6].

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Uncertainty is the Water we Swim in 

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After touching upon the surface of the Mekong River issue, it gets clear that it is a complex and difficult topic. Many parties and interests are involved and millions of lives are affected by the choice on how to handle the hydro-politics regarding the Mekong River. Many of the choices and actions are taken so far by humans have led to disastrous effects both for the people living in the Mekong River basin and its flora and fauna. Although hydroelectricity positively impacted economic growth, modernization, and improvement of life situations in the region. It is hard to balance out the gains and losses and we are not in the position to ultimately judge. 

Are the surpluses of hydroelectric dams outweighing their negative consequences? The answer will likely depend on who you ask, and also where you are asking the question. We can certainly guess the answer from the farmers in the Mekong Delta. What do you think?

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Image by Wirestock; Mekong River with Traditional Boat

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[1] Commission (MRC), M. R. (n.d.). Mekong Basin. Retrieved from www.mrcmekong.org website: https://www.mrcmekong.org/about/mekong-basin/ 

[2] Vidal, J., Poulton, L., Randerson, J., Ekaterina Ochagavia, Brown, G., Aldred, J., … Daan Louter. (2018). The Mekong river: stories from the heart of the climate crisis. Retrieved December 16, 2019, from the Guardian website: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2015/nov/26/the-mekong-river-stories-from-the-heart-of-the-climate-crisis-interactive 

[3] Adelphi. (n.d.). Dam projects and disputes in the Mekong River Basin | Climate-Diplomacy. Retrieved from climate-diplomacy.org website: https://climate-diplomacy.org/case-studies/dam-projects-and-disputes-mekong-river-basin 

[4] Shkara, N. D. (2018). Water conflict on the Mekong River. International Journal of Contemporary Research and Review9(06), 20472–20477. https://doi.org/10.15520/ijcrr/2018/9/06/515 

[5] International Hydropower Association. (2014). China | International Hydropower Association. Retrieved from Hydropower.org website: https://www.hydropower.org/country-profiles/china 

[6] European Parliament. (2018). Water Disputes in the Mekong Basin. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2018/620223/EPRS_ATA(2018)620223_EN.pdf 

[7] Soutullo, J. (2019). STUDY Policy Department for External Relations. Retrieved from https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2019/639313/EXPO_STU(2019)639313_EN.pdf 

[8] WWF. (2014). Wildlife of the Greater Mekong. Retrieved from Panda.org website: https://greatermekong.panda.org/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/

[9] Lovgren, S. (2020, January 31). The Mekong Delta is in danger as waters dry up. Retrieved from Science website: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/article/southeast-asia-most-critical-river-enters-uncharted-waters 

[10] Briefing, V. (2018, May 7). Investment Environment in Mekong Delta. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from Vietnam Briefing News website: https://www.vietnam-briefing.com/news/investment-environment-mekong-delta.html/ 

[11] El Discha, F., & Ratajzcak, E. (2020, December 16). How businesses can benefit from Viet Nam’s energy transition – Blog. Retrieved October 21, 2021, from South Pole website: https://www.southpole.com/blog/how-businesses-can-benefit-from-viet-nams-energy-transition

[12] Ide, T., Thiel, A.-K., & Fischhendler, I. (2019). The Critical Geopolitics of Water Conflicts in School Textbooks: The Case of Germany. In Water Alternatives (p. 18). Retrieved from https://www.water-alternatives.org/index.php/alldoc/for-authors/491-a12-1-17/file 


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