China’s New Environmental Leadership and its Implications for Human Rights: The Case of the Mekong River

Michael Shyer

The Mekong River snakes South-Southeast from its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau on a journey through six countries: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. For communities situated along the banks of the Mekong, the river plays multiple roles. It is the historical, artistic and cultural root for many local peoples, and simultaneously supplies the region’s fresh water and plays host to the world’s largest inland fishery (Herbertson, 2011). Over the past few decades, it has also become an important source of hydroelectric power and a target for development projects. These development projects have come at great cost to local communities and river ecology. Development projects can have direct impacts on the human rights of local communities if, through environmental degradation, they threaten access to clean food, water, housing or the means to make a living; or, if they deprive a region of its cultural heritage. Now China, as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is seeking to play a leadership role in coordinating and financing development projects along the Mekong River basin. It has created a new regional organisation, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), of which all six riparian countries are members, which seeks to promote development in the region. But what does this new organisation mean for the local people whose lives depend on the health of the river? Will the LMC take their interests into account, or is it merely a Janus-faced ideological cover for corporate and state interests? There is reason to suspect that it is the latter. In order to better understand why, we must first take a look at the recent history of development projects on the Mekong.

In July of 2018, Saddle Dam D burst on the Mekong in Laos, and the resulting flood killed dozens and displaced tens of thousands from their downstream communities (Ives, 2018). Dams can have startling and dramatic effects on river ecology, and the 2018 dam disaster was just the most recent, and most visible, representation of such dangers. A broad alliance of concerned organisations and activists has long warned of the dangers of dam projects for both humans and wildlife, but the projects have nevertheless proliferated. Dams offer fast, cheap and relatively dependable supplies of renewable energy, and are therefore appealing, especially to developing economies, like those of the Mekong River countries, with rising energy demand.

An existing regional organisation, the Mekong River Commission (MRC), has since 1995 sought to mitigate the risks of dam projects. In the 1995 Mekong Agreement, four of the six riparian countries (excluding China and Myanmar), agreed to “reasonable and equitable utilization” of Mekong River resources, resulting in the creation of the Procedures for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) (Mekong River Commission, 1995). These procedures are meant to ensure that in the case of major alterations to the mainstream of the Mekong River (such as for hydroelectric dam projects), other member states must first be notified and consulted before construction begins.

The PNPCA process is far from perfect, and in fact it has come under intense criticism for failing to adequately protect both the environment and rights of local people. The MRC stresses that it is not a regulatory body and has limited authority, and in a nod to transparency, it publishes public comments and criticisms on its website. Nevertheless, the PNPCA has had some limited success. For example, the new Xayaburi Dam in Laos went through the PNPCA process, eventually resulting in $400 million dollars of addition investment in mitigation technologies and design alterations (Harris, November, 2016). Many believe that the MRC’s PNPCA currently fails, however, to adequately account for and address concerns of those directly affected by the dam projects, instead, serving as a high-level inter-governmental forum. According to International Rivers, “both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong Dams proceeded despite strongly expressed concern and opposition from neighboring governments and the public” (Harris, December, 2016, p16). In fact, in reference to the Don Sahong dam project, the United Nations Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council issued a formal complaint that the human rights of many downstream from the project would be affected, “particularly in relation to [local people’s] right to an adequate standard of living, including the rights to adequate food and housing, the right to the highest standard of physical and mental health, cultural rights, the rights to information and participation; as well as the rights of indigenous peoples” (UN OHCHR, 2016). Both the MRC and the government of Laos issued formal responses to this complaint (The Permanent Mission of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva, 2016; Mekong River Commission, 2016). Dozens of more dam projects are in the planning stages, and there is widespread doubt that the MRC has the resources to adequately manage the coming tide. Adding to this grim picture, the dramatic decline of iconic symbols of the river’s ecology, such as the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the Mekong Giant Catfish, and it becomes clear that the Mekong is in crisis.

For this reason, many welcome China’s entry into regional leadership. The MRC itself says it hopes to work as an important partner with the LMC (Mekong River Commission, 2018). Similarly, the LMC has said that it will take into consideration the recommendations of governments and NGOs (Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, 2019). Perhaps there is room for all parties. Certainly, any attempt to coordinate river development should include China, right?

One has to peer only slightly under the surface to uncover a myriad of problems with proposed Chinese leadership. The most obvious reason for concern is that China is not, and has never been, a member of the MRC. Instead, the construction of its “cascade” of dam projects proceeded methodically without even the fig leaf of consultation or dialogue with local people or with downstream governments. According to international rivers, these dam projects displaced some 100,000 people, and could have disastrous effects for the environment downriver (International Rivers, 2013). China, and others have argued that the LMC could facilitate political dialogue, as its membership includes all six riparian countries, creating the potential for real “basin-wide” management of the Mekong. Yet, when China’s own environmental disaster is a fait-accompli, and when it acted callously in the past, ignoring attempts at multilateralism, why should it be trusted as a regional leader?

Past behavior is of course not always predictive of future action. It remains possible that the LMC could diverge from China’s own past development pattern and encourage a more sustainable, equitable development for the region and its people. To the people living by the river, what is important is not who is leading development efforts, but rather if their voices will be taken into the consideration. The LMC promotes a green vision, and to this end, created a “Lancang-Mekong Environmental Cooperation Center,” whose Environmental Cooperation Strategy (ECS) has several genuinely forward-thinking goals, such as developing a transnational “biodiversity corridor” in the Mekong (Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, 2019). The complete absence of any formal procedures, regulations or mechanisms in the ECS might be excused, as the organisation is still young, and it has shown willingness take outside advice.

Yet, if we dig deeper, things become more concerning. For one thing, the LMC ECS never mentions the word dam (Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, 2019). Right away, the most pressing issue for Mekong communities and its environment is left out of the agenda. Similarly, the ECS provides no specifics about how it will engage with local populations of the affected regions and provides no guarantee that they will have a voice in planned development projects that may impact their livelihoods. The ECS only states that local communities will be “encouraged to join in the cooperation,” in some unspecified capacity (Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, 2019). Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated that the LMC should be a “bulldozer,” encouraging efficiency and discouraging bureaucratic “talk” (Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the UN, 2017). It seems unlikely to me, that the voices of local people will be heard over the drone of bulldozers and business interests. This is evidenced by the consultative partners that the LMC brings to the table.  

Chinese business interests featured prominently at the 2017 Lancang-Mekong Environmental Cooperation Roundtable Dialogue. A Powerpoint presentation from the Bossco Environmental Protection Technology Group states that “[environmental protection] requirements from Countries along Mekong River [sic.] can be met by Chinese enterprises” (Song, 2017). A similar Powerpoint presentation from Hydrolancang, a large Chinese hydroelectric dam company, shows off their various environmental impact mitigation strategies (which include measures of questionable efficacy, according to International Rivers), such as artificially breeding fish whose native habitats have been destroyed, as well as manually “netting and carrying fish across the dam,” in instances where natural fish migration is disrupted (Guangming, 2017; (Harris, 2016 p7). Businesses will advocate first for measures that protect their interests. These dam and other projects cannot be allowed continue without further evaluation from environmental experts, and without further consultations with affected communities.

The human rights of the people of the Mekong River are protected by international law. These rights include “free, prior and informed consent to development projects that may deprive them of their lands, territories or way of life” (Harris, 2016, p9) among other things. The LMC, due to its emphasis on speed, and due to Chinese business interests, gives voice to those elements that would move most quickly to endanger these rights. The region’s existing mechanisms, such as the MRC PNPCA, are already insufficient for protection of both the environment and human rights. Those interested in protecting the environment of the Mekong, and those concerned with human rights, should undoubtedly be concerned for the Mekong region. If China wishes to build further confidence in its leadership, it should give further assurances to respect the human rights of peoples in the region and make clearer and more transparent its decision-making process. Until such a time, its promises should be treated with skepticism.

This article was first published as part of LSESU Amnesty International Society’s annual human rights journal “A Climate of Change.”

Works Cited

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