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Topic: Ecology
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Vitaly Smyshlyaev

Expert under the Russian Center for Science and Culture in the Kingdom of Cambodia

Modern economy requires a constant increase in energy capacity, although it has recently become especially important to maintain a balance between industrial growth and habitat preservation.

The prosperity of Cambodia is largely provided by the Mekong River and its “storehouse”—the Tonlé Sap Lake, rightly called the “heart of the country”. During the rainy season, the lake expands fivefold, while shrinking during droughts. Local fish catches (500 thousand tons per year) provide the Khmers with two thirds of their animal protein, and the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Lake ecosystem has been called Cambodia’s “rice cup” for millennia.

In recent decades, the situation has sharply deteriorated, though. Today, the Mekong River does not receive enough water even during the rainy season, and so it dries up, periodically acquiring a blue color. This attracts tourists, yet terrifies the locals. The famous Mekong giant catfish has almost disappeared, and the carp, the most valuable fish, are becoming fewer and fewer. Tens of thousands of people have been left without their usual income, having to leave their homes; water is insufficient to irrigate crops, while the food balance and social stability of Cambodia are under threat.

Moscow’s participation in the MRC will help introduce a conceptual normative framework for international water use (for example, the so-called “ecological flow”) and to devise a system for monitoring and exchanging hydrological information.

On a conceptual and instrumental basis, it will be possible to develop contractual principles for the use of water resources, which are urgently needed for the countries of the Mekong basin, let alone Russia and the world community at large.

Flowing Through Six Nations

Modern economy requires a constant increase in energy capacity, although it has recently become especially important to maintain a balance between industrial growth and habitat preservation. With this balance disturbed, disastrous consequences ensue, whose negative effects span through many generations. A case in point is the construction of dams on the Mekong River.

The role that the Mekong plays in continental Southeast Asia can hardly be exaggerated. The mighty river is the source of water and sustenance for ten million people across six nations as well as a major traffic artery, capable of providing electrical energy for the needs of the industry.

As a matter of fact, the prosperity of Cambodia is largely provided by the Mekong River and its “storehouse”—the Tonlé Sap Lake, rightly called the “heart of the country”. During the rainy season, the lake expands fivefold, while shrinking during droughts. Local fish catches (500 thousand tons per year) provide the Khmers with two thirds of their animal protein, and the Mekong and Tonlé Sap Lake ecosystem has been called Cambodia’s “rice cup” for millennia.

Megawatts and a “Hungry River”

International Rivers

In recent decades, the situation has sharply deteriorated, though. Along the upper course of the Mekong, dozens of mega-dams have been built, with China alone detaining about 10% of the annual flow (47 billion cubic meters of water; remember this figure!). Along the middle course, Laos, the “battery of Asia”, has built 46 hydropower plants that generate 6,400 MW of electricity.

Today, the Mekong River does not receive enough water even during the rainy season, and so it dries up, periodically acquiring a blue color. This attracts tourists, yet terrifies the locals. After all, the usual caramel color of the river means an abundance of dissolved minerals and nutrients and, accordingly, rich fish catches. The blue river is called “hungry”: “Today’s blue-green water phenomenon is likely to spread to other stretches of the Mekong where low flows are experienced,” says Dr. So Nam, director of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) Environmental Management. “This could, in turn, affect the productivity of aquatic biodiversity, reducing fish catches and threatening the livelihoods of local communities.”

The famous Mekong giant catfish has almost disappeared, and the carp, the most valuable fish, are becoming fewer and fewer. Tens of thousands of people have been left without their usual income, having to leave their homes; water is insufficient to irrigate crops, while the food balance and social stability of Cambodia are under threat.

Forecasts for the future are disappointing. On its own, Cambodia will be unable to achieve a restoration of the water balance from the upstream countries, and the negotiations within the MRC, the “Mekong Commission”, have so far been fruitless. MRC was established as a consultative intergovernmental organization to include Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Viet Nam, with Myanmar and China being “partners for dialogue”. The Commission has seen major advances; the Decision Support Framework (DSF), an analytical tool set up to assess the magnitude of changes in the Mekong basin, is particularly worthy of attention. This mechanism serves to build trust between the participating states, and it helps to demonstrate the behavior of the river system under a set of different events.

However, the MRC lacks any potent enforcement tools to influence the water use policy. As of now, a common policy on water use seems impossible to be worked out, as each of the countries hogs the blanket of the Mekong to itself, which further exacerbates the situation. For example, in 2020, the Cambodian government refused to build two dams—in Sambor and Stung Treng; however, China continues to build several mega-dams, Laos plans to build 54 hydroelectric power plants on the Mekong and its tributaries, and the Vietnamese government has decided to build the colossal 1,460 MW Luang Prabang Dam on the Lower Mekong, which will cause irreparable damage to the river delta.

“The Mekong Knot” and Russia’s Prospects

Global warming is aggravating the situation as the glaciers of the Himalayas are rapidly melting. The increase in run-off is intercepted by dams in the upper reaches, though, leaving the downstream countries without enough water even now. When the glaciers are depleted and the influence of El Niño, which is warming the water in the southwestern part of the Pacific Ocean, on the climate of the region becomes even more noticeable, a disaster will come. The necessary measures must be taken right now. There are positive signals as well—for example, the State Council of the People’s Republic of China has adopted a document “On the Development of Environmental Management”, which indicates the need for green investments within the Belt and Road. The United States joined the creation of a rational and sustainable mechanism for the use of the Mekong’s water resources by publishing hydrological data from satellite monitoring. But the situation is too threatening and these positive developments are woefully insufficient. Besides, the path to agreement is complicated by the multi-vector interests of the Southeast Asian nations that are part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with a certain distrust towards the U.S. present among the Southeast Asian countries. At the same time, Cambodia and other countries in the region have a long history of strong and friendly relations with Russia.

Russia’s role in unleashing the Mekong Knot can be multifaceted. The technical and economic assistance of Russia would be irreplaceable, such as in the implementation of a unique technology for the drip irrigation of rice crops which was developed by Nikolai Dubenok and Ivan Kruzhilin, academicians of the Russian Academy of Sciences, or when it comes to the training of relevant personnel. Russia’s participation in the MRC negotiation process would help to achieve constructive shifts.

As for the drip irrigation technologies, it should be noted that the rice yield in Cambodia is one of the lowest in Asia, ranging from 1.5 to 2 tons/ha, with the annual gross harvest standing at about 10 million tons. The implementation of the unique Russian technologies coupled with a transition to new varieties of rice—for example, IR36 and IR42—will increase the yield to 5-7 tons/ha while reducing water consumption by three-to-four times (!). To assess the importance of this technology for Cambodia, let us provide a simple calculation: to cultivate 1 kg of rice requires an average of 2,400 liters of water, therefore, 10 million tons of annual harvest take 24 billion cubic meters of water. With a twofold increase in yield (i.e. 20 million tons), the flow of 48 billion cubic meters of upward water is required. Through the use of the Russian technology, only 12-16 billion cubic meters will be needed. The technology of academician Nikolai Dubenok was introduced and tested by scientists of the Timiryazev Academy together with their colleagues from the All-Russian Research Institute for Irrigated Agriculture (Volgograd Region) on an experimental field. They have confirmed the results of drip irrigation that puts a premium on economic efficiency and high profitability.

This technology is simple and can be introduced in Cambodia relatively quickly. One should be sure to take the traditional conservatism of peasant thinking into account; therefore, for the drip irrigation to be successful, preliminary preparation is required. Meetings and round tables in rice-growing provinces as well as meetings with local administrations and heads of communities are essential—without them, it could be difficult to achieve the farmers’ trust in the new technology.

AFP Forum

A similar situation unfolds in fishing. The 2007 Law on Fisheries of the Kingdom of Cambodia was passed amid somewhat other hydrological conditions, but it includes all the necessary basic allowances for innovation in this traditional field of activity. The “Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation in the Field of Fishery and Aquaculture” signed by the Federal Agency for Fishery of the Russian Federation and the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fishery of Cambodia contains promising opportunities for mutually beneficial cooperation.

Taking a Global Perspective: “Water Wars” or Legal Route?

As far as Russia’s participation in long-term negotiation processes is concerned, we should remember that international legal instruments to improve water allocation are precipitately acquiring a high-profile influence on a global scale. There are thousands of glaciers in the Great Himalayan Watershed, where the largest river systems in Asia originate. They act as sources of water for almost half of the world’s population, including the Central Asian nations, Russia’s close neighbors.

Conflicts over water resources are already the case in the region as clashes break out on a regular basis. The situation is similar in the Middle East: one of the reasons for the persisting instability in this region is the lack of water. Water allocation also explains the tense relations between Turkey and Syria, Turkey and Iraq, Iraq and Iran as the construction of dams in Turkey has sharply reduced water consumption of the countries in the lower reaches of the rivers. The issues of inter-state water use will aggravate each year.

Adopted by the UN in 1992, the International Watercourses Convention is not exhaustive to be applicable as an effective working tool for the settlement of multilateral disputes. The widely acclaimed 2015 Paris Pact on Water and Adaptation to Climate Change, coming as the result of the efforts undertaken by the Global Water Partnership (GWP) and the International Network of Basin Organizations (INBO), did not bear the expected fruits and failed to extinguish the existing “water disputes.” The GWP operated in Southeast Asia as well, reporting in 2019 on the successful implementation of the “Water, Climate and Development for Southeast Asia” program, whose stated goals are integration of water security, support for the countries of Southeast Asia in adapting to the new climate regime and poverty reduction. The partnership’s efforts, however, yielded no practical results.

The lack of a legal basis does not allow for agreements on the interstate use of water to be drafted; meanwhile, Russia has a unique positive experience of this kind. The Russian organization Rivers Without Borders, headed by Evgeny Simonov, has advanced a lot in settling cross-border water disputes with Mongolia and China in the Amur, Ussuri and Argun basins. Mr. Simonov graduated from the biology faculty of Moscow State University, studied at Yale University in the U.S. and received a doctorate in nature conservation in China, and he is an excellent intercultural moderator.

Moscow’s participation in the MRC will help introduce a conceptual normative framework for international water use (for example, the so-called “ecological flow”) and to devise a system for monitoring and exchanging hydrological information. The first step on the path to be embarked on could be a round table with the participation of experts from Russia and from the region which will see the discussion to establish long- and medium-term goals and objectives.

Moving the conceptual and instrumental basis forward, it will be possible to develop contractual principles for the use of inter-state water resources, which are urgently needed for the countries of the Mekong basin, let alone Russia and the world community at large.

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