The Mekong is one of Asia’s most important rivers, supporting 60 million people in Southeast Asia. But for the second consecutive year, the lower Mekong basin has hit a record low water flow, affecting irrigation, rice production and fisheries, all vital to the region’s food security. The drought has also damaged habitats for turtles, reptiles and other critically endangered species.
A reduction in rainfall has caused some of the water loss, according to an August report by the Mekong River Commission. But it also points a finger at upstream hydropower dams—mostly in China—that have held back a large amount of water. The Mekong River originates in China’s Tibetan plateau. Critics say those dams will continue to be a source of conflict unless China moves to other ways of producing power and cooperation increases among the countries.
Beijing launched a Mekong water cooperation initiative called Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework (LMC) in 2016, with five other countries—Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Critics welcomed the potential for cooperation, but also said it could allow China to weaponize water for economic and geopolitical gains.