Voices from the Field

Commentary & Opinions

2019.9: The Future of the Mekong River, and Interview with Brian Eyler

Brian Eyler is the Director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program. Eyler is an expert on transboundary issues in the Mekong region and specializes in China's economic cooperation with Southeast Asia. He has spent more than fifteen years living and working in China and over the last ten years has conducted extensive research with stakeholders in the Mekong region, leading numerous study tours through China and mainland Southeast Asia. Before coming to the Stimson Center, he served as the Director of the IES Kunming Center at Yunnan University. He holds a MA from the University of California, San Diego and a BA from Bucknell University. Brian is the co-founder of the influential website EastBYSoutheast.com. His first book, The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong, was be published by Zed Books in 2019.

 Eyler RECENTLY sat down with CAS web editor Jessica Chandras to answer some questions about the Mekong River and its future related to the work Eyler does on policy and environmental matters in the region.

 How did you get started with this work and what personal history do you have with the region?

 I began to research Mekong issues broadly in graduate school, but I found the Mekong from the perspective of a person who studied China for most of his academic training. What first piqued my interest about the Mekong and Southeast Asia was how China’s trade was picking up along the river between China and Thailand. I landed a summer research project to go and learn more about the trade increase, and that’s when I first learned about the efforts of Thai community members to stop the blasting of rapids on that portion of the river. I also then first came across the problem of hydropower development and the various threats that that development poses. This was fifteen years ago and a lot more is known now about the Mekong and the various challenges that investment-led growth and over-engineering of the Mekong system presents to the region. Further along in time, I academic programs for American undergraduates, many of whom were from GW, based in Kunming, China for an academic semester of study. I led the students on three-week field trips to the region to meet with stakeholders from various levels, such as policy makers, private sector investors, and those at the community level. Through these meetings, it became apparent to me that the timeframe for influencing the development trajectory in the Mekong was very short, so I shifted course. Instead of continuing to teach about the Mekong I came to work for the Stimson center where my team promotes sustainable and alternative development options for policy-makers in the region.

What are some specific changes you’ve seen over the course of your work for 15 years in the region? What do you see as the most significant threats to the river and the groups of people who depend on it?

 When I started researching the Mekong there were no mainstream dams built on the Lower Mekong and only a few of the dams had been built on the upstream portions of China’s Mekong. I watched China’s dam development happen very rapidly as well as economic development progress in a very invasive way. Investment to promote GDP growth happened in a very invasive way in China’s Yunnan province. So that helped inform me of what was coming down the pike in Southeast Asia and a lot of that investment-led growth has certainly unfolded through numerous projects and their related threats to the lower Mekong basin. I’ve observed many resettlement communities that have been impacted by hydropower projects. These communities have been unable to recuperate their previous level of livelihood and wellbeing. There will be many more groups like them whose livelihoods will be altered in the future. At the same time, working on this issue set over a period of time has given me a perspective on how the market is at play for power sector development. Now in the lower Mekong basin, where ten years ago scale solar projects could not be built in any of the Mekong countries, the renewable energy sector is ripe for investment. Certain countries are moving faster than others. For example, Thailand is faster that any country in the region, and Vietnam is close behind. Laos and Cambodia now have an opportunity to leapfrog over these more traditionally managed power sectors in Thailand and Vietnam. They (Laos and Cambodia) can reap big sustainability gains by choosing to build more solar than hydropower or rethinking the way that hydropower can feed their national energy mixes. We’re at a time now where the technology is available and the investment landscape can be built to chart a smarter course for the Mekong Basin but, like I said, the window for opportunity is very small. Opportunities to shift away from the current development trajectory exist, and without change the Mekong Basin is on still on course for a rapid loss of various natural resource bases such as fisheries loss and agricultural impacts.

What are some platforms or opportunities you found to help continue this work? And as head of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, how do you see your role as a researcher and advocate for concrete policies? Specifically, how does the Stimson center as a platform progress knowledge/activist work about the Mekong region?

I think gaps that we fill are ones where we try to demonstrate the mightiness of the Mekong. For example, the Mekong has a very unique ecosystem. For example Tonlé Sap River reverses direction during the monsoon season and expands the Tonle Sap’s lake footprint by 5 times in area. Nothing like this happens anywhere else in the world. And this reversal produces the world largest fish catch of 500,000 tons per year.

I think that there is a lack of understanding of the unique nexus of water, food, and energy issues that are coming together so much so that policy makers may think that they’re making sound decisions for economic development, but they’re missing opportunities or entirely moving in the wrong direction. This can occur because of a lack of understanding on how parts of the ecosystem work together or from a false sense of confidence that policy makers can replace what is lost from development. Also there needs to be importance of technical processes such as alternative studies. If you’re looking at project A and not looking at how project A stacks up against a better alternative, then an alternative is something that should be pursued. My team at the Stimson Center is made up of policy analysts who interact at the policy level. I talk to high-level leaders down to the director general level of ministries to try and have rational conversations with them to demonstrate the power of alternative discourses and sustainable development. But there are limits to the technical capabilities that my team can bring to the table. So we’ve teamed up with UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resource Group and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and other regional and local stakeholders to formulate technical assistance programs that could make a difference in the region and are based on building capacity through participatory, on-the-ground processes that again can deliver change. Finally, another impact that we seek to make is through discursive impacts, influencing how decision makers talk and think about the basin at large. It’s very difficult to go and have a conversation with an energy planner to talk about the importance of water and fish. They lose interest really quickly. But often when you promote renewable energy options to energy planners their eyes light up. By discussing how these forms of renewable energy can potentially replace hydropower, because they’re cheaper and less risky, we can move the needle forward. Then when you talk to water ministerial officials, food, fisheries, and forestry ministerial officials, and environment officials about the power of non-hydropower renewable energy like solar and wind, they also get excited. They see ways to develop a discourse that they can take to their inter-ministerial conversations to discuss how outcomes within their own decision making processes can be improved.

Do you see any hope for the future of the Mekong, as China starts more rigorously enforcing its own environmental laws?

Chinese stakeholders and policy makers have apparently realized that investment-led growth has led to near total ecological destruction in their own rivers has led to increased environmental legal frameworks and oversight. There are those in China who think it is only a matter of time until the ecological destruction translates abroad and clearly it is already happening. So is it a matter of time until Chinese stakeholders act more responsibly abroad? Unfortunately China watchers have been asking this question for more than a decade. Now there is also rhetoric within the Chinese administration and in the Communist Party to promote a “greening” of the Belt and Road Initiative as well as a discourse of “ecological civilization”. But, what we really have not seen is any nod towards that direction for investment projects abroad, particularly in countries that are loosely and weakly governed which have lower environmental and social governance standards. In fact, it’s an easy fix for Chinese state-owned enterprises which have excess capacity now that China’s economy is slowing down. They can more easily go and invest and build things in the countries with lower regulatory frameworks.

Do I have hope that China can impact the change of the future of the Mekong? I guess so as far as energy planning goes and the need to facilitate a renewable energy transition globally. China is making smart moves inside its own borders. China is committed to the Paris Treaty and is engaging with other countries abroad. Can china begin to engage with other countries abroad on a power sector transition that is more climate friendly and lower impact? In theory, yes. It’s probably one of the only countries that can deliver programmatic visions for sectoral development or for managing a complex natural landscape. However, there are barriers to do this because of vested interests who benefit from building a particular hydropower project. Those vested interests must be managed through carrots or sticks if a turn for the better is to be taken. China’s mode of international relations, which eschews interference - interference is something the Chinese avoid at all costs and is considered to be something the West does -  needs to begin to shape sustainable governance methods abroad, like power sector capacity building and practices for example. If there is a sense of responsibility for large global powers to initiate a shift and help other countries make good on their Paris climate agreements, perhaps it is time to rethink whether China can engage in a such capacity building abroad, instead of seeing these actions as a form of interference, so China can graduate into the role of being a cooperative development partner.

robert shepherdComment