MEKONG BASIN RESEARCH (SE-ASIA)
The Mekong River Basin (MRB) is the prevailing geo-hydrological structure on the Southeast Asian mainland. Consequently, the people living within this region have adapted their production techniques and their way of life to the given and seasonal varying natural condition of the Mekong and its tributaries. Moreover, they are extremely dependent on the river`s resources (e.g. fish, water, sediments) and thus highly vulnerable, if the water or flow regime is changing as a consequence of natural (e.g. floods, droughts) or human made factors (e.g. hydropower generation or population pressure) (Menniken, 2008; Nuorteva et al., 2010).
Great ethnic, religious and cultural heterogeneity characterizes the human geography of the MRB and creates a number of opportunities but also threats for the socio-economic development within this region (ADB, 2012; MRC, 2011c). Even though estimations about the range of demographic development of the Mekong region are varying, there is a consensus in the scientific discussion about a continuously growing population in the near future. These uncertain forecasts are a result of an often inconsistency in census data collection in the six different countries with their various administrative areas (Eastham et al., 2008). Accordingly, the population of the MRB is expected to grow from currently approximately 70 million people (see Menniken, 2008; MRC, 2010a; Pech and Sunada, 2008) to more than 90 to 100 million by 2025 (Eastham et al., 2008; Menniken, 2008; MRC, 2003). In this context it is also noteworthy that millions of people outside the MRB are currently dependent on products, which have their origins in the MRB. For instance, the Vietnamese Mekong Delta is also called the ‘rice bowl of Vietnam’ as it contributes about 50% to the total rice production in 2012 (43.4 MT) of which 7.7 Mt were exported in of this country.
In terms of socio-economic aspects, the riparian states of the MRB are extremely heterogeneous and differ significantly from each other in their geographical size, number of inhabitants, types of economy, level of education, standard of living, political system or in relation to their cultural traditions and social practices. However, all countries of the LMB have high average economic growth rates from 6% up to 10% per year in common (2010) (UNstats, 2013). But besides these positive economic dynamics, large portions of the basin population remain among the poorest in the world and their associated level of socio-economic development thus has to be described as rather low. In Cambodia and Lao PDR, about one third of the population lives below the poverty line (WFP, 2008; JICA, 2009) and gross national income per capita in 2011 was US$830 in Cambodia and US$1,130 in Lao PDR (ADB, 2012).
Notwithstanding, all riparian countries of the MRB put a priority on achieving economic growth in order to decrease or break the spiral of poverty and low development. Together with a considerable population growth, which correlates with the prevalent poverty in this region, this economic growth will significantly increase future demand of natural resources such as water. Therefore, an intense competition as well as an increasingly unequal distribution of natural resources is expected (Menniken, 2008). This strain on the Mekong River and its related ecosystems could reach a point in the future when key indicators of ecological health (e.g. forest cover, biodiversity, fish stocks, soil quality etc.) are going to be reduced thus far that recovery may not be possible anymore (Kirstensen, 2004).
Resulting from the socio-economic heterogeneity of the Mekong`s riparian states, the potential and range in utilizing the water resources of the river are differing from country to country. China is primarily interested in hydropower generation, whereas Thailand and Vietnam mainly need water for irrigation (Hirsch, 2006). Cambodia heavily depends on fisheries and Laos combines all of these uses. The two latter countries can be characterized as the hydro-politically weakest riparian states, because they are the poorest and at the same time most dependent on the resources of the Mekong. However, Vietnam is in a vulnerable position, too, as it is located in the Mekong Delta region, an area highly affected both by maritime influences and all proceedings further upstream. In addition, Vietnam and Cambodia receive more than two-thirds of their required water resources from international watercourses, which are originating outside their borders, whereas Thailand imports only 40% of its water. With a hydro-electricity rate of 90%, Laos is increasingly vulnerable because the country develops its upcoming electricity supply solely on hydropower (Grumbine et al., 2012). As a consequence of these dependencies, it does not surprise that all four countries consider themselves as downstream riparian states. Resulting from their position, none of these countries is fully sovereign in hydro-politics: China as the upstream state has by its socio-economic, military and geo-physical hegemony the potential to limit the access to the Mekong water resources to an extent that it can significantly impact the future water supply, as well as the given and natural conditions of the entire Mekong region (Hirsch, 2006; Menniken, 2008; MRC, 2010a).
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