Mekong River Basin Map in Southeast Asia

The Mekong Monitor Project: Pushes for Transparency in Cross-border River Governance

The Mekong ASEAN China

Last month, with the grant from the US Department of State and the Chino Cienega Foundation, the Stimson Center launched the Mekong Dam Monitor in collaboration with Eyes on Earth. The monitor is a near-real time data platform, which uses remote sensing, satellite imagery, and GIS analysis to bring transparency to dam operations and water levels across the six countries of the Mekong basin: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The platform is available for the public on the US State Department’s Mekong Water Data Initiative website.

The Mekong Delta provides food, energy, and water security to millions of people in six Southeast Asian countries. There are about 250 million people who live in the lower Mekong basin, and 60 million people directly depend on the river for their livelihoods. The river is under great threat in recent years mostly due to the significant increase in the amount of water impounded behind large dams. Although Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia all have dams constructed in the Mekong river, their dams are in the downstream portion of the river, where their water activities depend on the operation of China’s 11 massive dams on the upstream portion of the river. As Beijing has refused to join any international water treaty or share their hydrological data, the countries downstream are left with little information and no option but to rely on China’s “goodwill” for the continued supply of water.

In the past few years, historic low water levels in the Mekong have devastated many communities living around the basin area. Dry riverbeds, dead fish, and damaged farms plagued Mekong countries, and Thailand had to mobilize its military to aid a drought emergency response in the Northeastern part of the country in 2019. The fishing villages in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake reported an 80-90% reduction in caught fish. The two major rice producers in the region, Vietnam and Thailand, also recorded great declines in rice yield.

In a report published in April 2020, researchers from Eyes on Earth stated that Chinese dams play a major role in causing the severe drought in the lower Mekong basin in 2019. By using physical river gauge evidence from the Mekong River Commission and remote sensing processes, the study is able to prove that Chinese dam reservoirs had held back excess monsoon rains and significantly reduced water flow in downstream countries. Researchers also found that river height was considerably lowered after 2012, when several Chinese dams and reservoirs went into operation.

Brian Eyler, Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program Director and project co-lead said, “The Mekong Dam Monitor platform lifts the veil on dam operations and water levels on the Mekong in a way that’s never been possible before... In turn, we hope that transparency will increase accountability, empower countries most affected by dams, and ultimately help protect both the river and the people who depend on it.”

Lam Tran is a Research Intern and participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington.