Transboundary River Cooperation in Mekong Basin: A Sub-regional Perspective

Published date01 April 2022
Date01 April 2022
Subject MatterResearch Articles
Research Article
Transboundary River
Cooperation in Mekong
Basin: A Sub-regional
Priyanka Mallick1,2
Freshwater resource management is one of the important challenges of the
twenty-first century. It becomes more complicated when the river crosses
a political boundary. A country can implement water resource management
policies to promote more sustainable growth and development within its borders.
However, it is not easy to enforce policies in the case of a transboundary river.
Mekong River basin is crucial for freshwater resources and other activities like
fishing, agricultural production, transportation, diverse biodiversity, hydropower
generation, and so on. In addition, the basin supports the livelihoods of more than
60 million people. The massive expansion in the development of hydroelectric
plants in the upper reaches of the Mekong has had a significant impact on the
basin’s ecology during the previous decade. Hydropower dams are trapping the
nutrients carrying sediment load and preventing it from reaching the floodplains.
China’s increasing hydropower activities is a significant concern for downstream
countries. Its policies are not transparent with lower Mekong basin (LMB)
nations. To limit China’s influence, the USA is also attempting to engage with the
basin countries. In such a situation, effective sub-regional cooperation for the
sustainable development of the Mekong basin is crucial, where all stakeholders’
interests are considered.
Mekong basin, hydropower projects, regional cooperation, China, Mekong Delta
Journal of Asian Security
and International Affairs
9(1) 50–71, 2022
© The Author(s) 2022
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/23477970221076746
1 Faculty in Bengaluru City University, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India.
2 Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, Delhi, India.
Corresponding author:
Priyanka Mallick, Independent Research Scholar, International Relations-Bengaluru, Bengaluru, India.
Mallick 51
Water is crucial to the economy and the environment, not only for human and
ecosystem survival but also for agricultural production, industrial development,
electricity generation, transportation and regional peace and security. Rapid
population growth, urbanisation and economic development have all increased
demand for this limited resource. As a result, scientists and policy makers
predict that similar to the oil crisis of the twentieth century, water will be the
most contested precious resource in the twenty-first century. Freshwater has gone
from being a plentiful natural resource to being rapidly depleted over the past
few decades. According to UN estimates, by 2025, more than half of the world’s
population will live in water-stressed or water-scarce countries (UN Water, 2018).
Rivers that cross political boundaries add another layer of complication in
terms of institutional constraints and riparian relationships. There are 276
transboundary river basins and lakes that cover nearly half of the earth’s surface
and 40% of the world’s population. According to the UN report, 145 countries
have territories in these basins, and 30 countries are entirely enclosed (UN Water,
2008). These transboundary basins and aquifers connect populations from various
countries and support the incomes and livelihoods of millions of people worldwide.
All transboundary water bodies foster hydrological, social and economic
interdependence among societies. They are critical for economic development
and poverty alleviation. These international waterways have served as both a
source of conflict and a catalyst for cooperation.
Within its political boundaries, an individual country can implement more
sustainable water resource management policies for its growth and development.
However, it is not easy to enforce policies in the case of a transboundary river.
Riparian countries differ in socioeconomic development, capacity to manage
water resources, infrastructure, political orientation, institutional and legal
frameworks. Schmeier (2012) focuses on river basin organisations as key
institutions for managing internationally shared water resources. She follows the
neo-institutionalist school of thought, which holds that international environmental
institutions do make a difference.
Giordano et al. (2002) took a different approach to study transboundary water
conflicts. The authors attempt to establish a conceptual framework for evaluating
the spatial relationship between water events. The goal is to determine how domestic
and international factors influence national and international water conflict and
cooperation. Thus, it aims to investigate the link between international relations and
water politics. The issue of water conflict has grown so strong that several scholars
argue that future wars will be fought over water. According to Wolf (1998), a war
over water appears to be neither strategically rational nor hydrographically or
economically viable. Shared interests along a waterway consistently seem to
outweigh water’s conflict-inducing characteristics. Furthermore, once cooperative
water regimes are established through treaty, they become remarkably resilient over
time, even between otherwise hostile riparians.
Another crucial area that emerged in the transboundary water dispute is hydro-
hegemony. It includes hegemonic power among riparian countries. This kind of

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