The Mekong Basin is a region of extraordinarily rapid political, economic, social and environmental change. Geopolitical change is manifest in the regional rapprochement that has facilitated an increasing integration of the resource economy within mainland Southeast Asia. Several initiatives, such as the Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion program on infrastructure development, are actively promoting large scale physical changes to the region that have profound social, environmental and economic implications. More generally, economic integration and associated economic growth means intensified exploitation of the region’s natural resource base.
While the potential economic returns to an intensified level of resource use are great, the social, economic and environmental risks are also very high. The Mekong Basin supports about 60 million people, most of whom depend directly on the natural resource base for their livelihood and well-being. The complex micro- and macro-ecology of the Basin renders it vulnerable to disruption in one part leading to flow-on effects in another. Moreover, the benefits and costs of river basin development are likely to be spread quite unevenly, for several reasons:
Unequal levels of development in Mekong Basin countries
Unequal social structures within Mekong Basin countries.
Social, spatial, temporal and environmental externalities intrinsic to river basin resource development
Development that puts economic growth before equity and sustainability
The lives of the Basin’s population, and indeed of the wider Mekong sub-region’s 230 million people, are thus being transformed by the multifaceted and rapid changes. New resource management challenges arise with the increased level of use, competition and potential conflict over the regional resource base, at every level from the local to the international. The Mekong River Commission is charged with the task of promoting sustainable development of the Mekong Basin, and this means reconciling developmental and environmental interests, the interests of the riparian states, as well as the multiple stakeholders within each country.
In 1995-6, the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID) commissioned the University of Sydney to coordinate a study of natural resource management issues in the Mekong Basin. The objectives of the study were to:
establish a perspective of potential Australian assistance in natural resource management projects for the Mekong Basin subregion
identify sectors for Australian involvement with special reference to institutional and jurisdictional issues
identify cross-sectoral issues such as environmental and gender concerns which are important to natural resource management of the Mekong Basin subregion
This study involved several institutions and individuals in Australia, Thailand, Lao PDR and Vietnam. A report was completed in 1996 and presented at a seminar involving a number of key Australian players, including relevant AusAID departments, several NGOs, the Murray-Darling Basin Commission, as well as academics with expertise in the field. The book-length report is freely available on the Internet (http://www.usyd.edu.au/ su/geography/mekong), as is other information on the Mekong Basin.
While the main report pulled together information in a form directed primarily at issues of development cooperation, the individual studies from which it was compiled raise a range of more specific questions of importance. A set of working papers was seen as the most appropriate way to make the results of these focused elements of the study more widely available. Each of the working papers, of which this is the second to be published, takes either a thematic or a country focus. The Asia Research Centre on Social, Political and Economic Change in Asia (ARC), one of the institutions participating in the wider study, has kindly agreed to publish these working papers.
The Mekong Basin lies within the territory of six countries. The importance of the basin to each country is dependent in part on the relative proportion of territory, population and production that lies within the Basin and depends on its resources. In the case of China, the Mekong Basin overlaps with less than two per cent of the country’s territory and also contains less than two per cent of the country’s population. However, this belies the significance of the Mekong Basin to China, and even more so the significance of China to the Basin. Moreover, for the province in question - Yunnan - the Mekong Basin holds even greater significance, as a conduit and focal point for its role as China’s international gateway to Southeast Asia. Nearly half the length of the Mekong River lies within China, nearly one fifth of its runoff comes from Chinese territory, and the only mainstream dam on the Mekong River (or Lancang Jiang as it is known here) is in the section of the river that lies within Yunnan Province.
Yunnan is at a key point in its development. For many decades a backwater in an isolated China, Yunnan has in the past several years emerged as an international gateway to the dynamic economies of Southeast Asia. Culturally and linguistically, Yunnan’s links with Thailand, Burma, Laos and Vietnam are many, with Tai and minority groups straddling national boundaries and, increasingly, moving between national territories. Economically, most countries of the region are promoting rapid integration. This takes a physical form through development of new infrastructure, and an institutional form through initiatives such as growth quadrangles, hexagons and so on - what has been termed the new ‘economic geometry’ of Southeast Asia. The Mekong corridor is a highly significant axis within this geometry.
In this paper, Peter Hinton shows the significance of Yunnan as a part of the Mekong Basin, but also shows how it has kept to the sidelines of the wider framework of regional cooperation through the Mekong River Commission. As the upstream country, China has least to gain from submitting to rules of water and information sharing; yet China, and Yunnan in particular, is also interested in engaging with the lower Mekong countries and developing areas such as navigation. For this and other reasons, it is crucial to understand changes in the Yunnanese section of the Mekong.
In this paper, all the views expressed are those of the author alone, and not necessarily those of AusAID, the ARC, or the working paper editors.