FocusOSA #4: Vietnam: Foreign Affairs

At the Greater Mekong Forum on Water, Food and Energy, held at the end of October in Rangoon, the issue of sustainable and fair use of the Mekong River resources was discussed. So far none of the existing formulas such as the Mekong River Commission, the Greater Mekong Subregion, a Chinese proposal i.e. Lancang Cooperation Mechanism – the Mekong or American Lower Mekong Initiative have contributed to devising a mechanism, acceptable to all parties. There are still no rules that would be acceptable to countries willing to develop their hydro-energetic potential, located in  the upper and middle reaches and those located in the lower part of the river basin using the Mekong water to irrigate large stretches of rice fields.

Vietnam, for which the Mekong Delta, also known as the Nine Dragon River, is to a certain extent ‚a granary’,  seems to be in the worst position. Half of the domestic output of rice is obtained here, 90% of which is exported. A great threat to the Vietnamese part of the river basin is also rising sea levels, which leads to salinization of the fertile Delta land and more frequent occurrence of droughts or floods.  Therefore, actions taken in the Chinese part of the river, where hydro-energetic facilities of installation power exceeding a few thousand MW, are still being built, have an increasingly important influence on the situation in Vietnam. The drought of 2016 cost Vietnam nearly 670 million dollars, and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development recorded the lowest water level since the 1920s. In addition, there was damage caused by El Niño and La Niña hurricanes.

In the circumstances Vietnamese-Chinese relationships are crucial. Despite the fact that last March the Chinese released water from dams in Yunnan province in order to help the government in Hanoi to fight drought, Vietnamese fears are still growing. The authorities in Beijing still do not agree to allow access to data in the monsoon season, which complicates preparations for potential floods and floodings in the Vietnamese river basin. What is more, China does not want to continue the plan of clearing riverbeds in order to create more convenient conditions for cargo ships, moving between ports in Yunnan province and Laotian and Thai harbours. Without further hesitation, this idea has been approved of by the authorities in Bangkok and Vientiane. Due to the People’s Republic of China’s plans of hydro-energetic expansion and the changing climate, Vietnam intends to execute 24 projects between 2017 and 2018, which should contribute to mitigating undesired effects of the activity of Chinese dams and rapid weather changes. Nine projects such as building flood banks, drainage ditches, control stations of water salinization, drinking water reservoirs, reservoirs with water used for irrigation of fields, are already in the development phase. The government of Vietnam is planning to spend about 500 million dollars on the whole undertaking, but Delta’s future and Vietnam’s food security will depend, to a  great extent, on the status of relations between countries sharing the Mekong resources and their actions in the river basin.