COVID-19 can fuel more anti-Chinese resentment than Mekong dams

The pandemic is likely to make life worse for Thai fishermen as well as Vietnamese and Cambodian farmers. Restrictions resulting from the virus could limit food supply. The food security of 60 million people in the lower part of the Mekong River is in danger.


Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The emergency triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic risks aggravating the already precarious conditions of Thai fishermen as well as Cambodian and Vietnamese farmers, who have been fighting for years against Chinese dams that have disrupted the water levels of the Mekong River.

Asia’s third longest waterway has been a source of concern for environmentalists and experts over the continuous and sudden changes in the flow of water caused by drought and upstream hydroelectric power plants.

On several occasions Thai fishermen have complained of a plunge in catches, whilst rice farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam have had to abandon their land and move to the cities because of shrinking harvests.

Alternating typhoons and prolonged droughts have compounded the problems caused by China’s 11 hydroelectric plants, five of which have been activated since 2017.

What is more, “water levels fluctuate almost every two to three days all year, and every year, because of the dams,” said Teerapong Pomun, director of the Mekong Community Institute.

According to recent estimates, the food security of 60 million people living in the lower part of the river, in what is considered Asia’s rice bowl, is at risk.

The United States has accused China of "stealing" the region's water. Beijing has rejected US theories and blames drought: that of 2019 was the worst ever in the past 50 years.

Vietnam has been forced to declare a state of emergency in five provinces in the Mekong Delta with farmers bearing the brunt of the situation because they have been forced to buy more fuel for water pumps, pushing up their costs.

For Zhang Hongzhou, a research fellow with Singapore’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, the situation is “worrying,” especially “in terms of food security”.

Bunleap Leang, executive director of 3S Rivers Protection Network, agrees. “Farm crop yields decrease, animals die, which has a huge impact on the livelihood of people as their life depends on natural resources,” he said.

Fish account for as much as 82 per cent of animal protein consumed locally. Fish cashes could drop up to 40 per cent drop through 2020 and as much as 80 per cent less by 2040.

In a report, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) expects Tonle Sap annual average fish production to fall from 350,000 to 260,000 tonnes by 2020, and to 200,000 tonnes by 2040.

“Fisheries production is expected to decline substantially upstream because of the hydropower dams and their impacts on migration, habitats and primary production,” the report read.

As noted by Harris Zainul, analyst at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Malaysia, the COVID-19 pandemic has made things worse for fishermen and farmers.

The virus could become a factor in the Mekong water disputes since it has prompted lockdowns in many countries, preventing farmers from getting food to markets.

Should this happen, Zainul contends the backlash against China over the pandemic could be greater than over the problems associated with the dams.

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