What is the link between Cambodian sand dredgers along the banks of the Mekong River, urban farmers in Phnom Penh, who are witnessing a drastic reduction in lake and wetland areas, and the Vietnamese farmers of the Mekong Delta, who are turning away from rice-growing to migrate to Ho Chi Minh City, the country’s economic capital, in search of a better life? Or between Laotian workers in the mining industry in Xaysomboun Province, near Vientiane, and the peasant farmers of the mountainous provinces in northern Thailand, who are increasingly dependent on the expansion of corn monoculture in the hands of multinational firms? Not to mention the Ta’ang tea farmers in Myanmar faced with the rollout strategy for a new economic development corridor on the Chinese border?
All these examples relate to one of the greatest challenges of the 20th century: the joint acceleration of inequalities and environmental damage. Recent studies have shown that this is a challenge all over the world, but the Mekong River Basin undoubtedly provides a perfect illustration. The region is home to an ethnic mosaic of more than 250 million people on the Indochinese peninsula, exposed to the full range of climate and environmental upheavals.
If proof were needed, the Covid-19 crisis reminds us of the extent to which ecological destruction can lead to healthcare inequalities and socioeconomic crises. Conversely, it also shows us how inequalities are themselves a major obstacle to the social cohesion that is necessary to undertake ecological reconstruction.
The integrative role of the Mekong River
This is particularly true in Southeast Asia and in particular in these five countries of the Mekong (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam) forming an original geographical entity.
On the one hand, the highlands are a shared mountainous area that is home to a great number of ethnic groups. This range in Southeast Asia, more recently called Zomia by anthropologist James Scott, comprises territories at altitudes above 300 meters. The highland populations here have resisted all state authority for centuries.
The Mekong River originates in the foothills of the Himalayas in China and flows through the basin. Historically, it is on the meanders of this river at the foot of the mountains that centers of power formed through history, with organized societies and the development of highly diverse agriculture.
A third form of shared landscape stands out in the basin: the coasts of the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea. In this region, typhoons are frequent and often destructive, but the people have learned to live with the water, whether in the immense delta of the river or on the steeper coastlines.
These countries are experiencing exceptional economic growth, driven by globalization and the emergence of China. Although they have not all experienced the same rates of growth and are not all at the same economic development level, they do exhibit a very clear common trend. Geopolitically, the five countries are learning to live together, after sometimes ignoring or opposing each other. A new balance is being struck both within the region and with neighboring nations. Given their close proximity with the emerging Chinese superpower, these countries share geopolitical constraints and opportunities which imply a delicate balance between imitation and autonomy. It is clear that the Mekong River plays a central integrative role in the peaceful development of the “angle of Asia”.
An environment suffering from disrupted ecological balances
The rapid integration of the Mekong River Basin into the global economy has placed considerable pressure on natural resources, and the environmental challenges in the region are huge. Dam construction, excessive groundwater extraction, fast-moving urban and infrastructure development, deforestation for export agriculture in particular, and mining have caused major environmental disruption and threatened the lives and livelihoods of millions of people, the most vulnerable of whom have paid a heavy price.
Multiple forms of pollution (both urban and rural) and environmental damage, which affect the population unequally, are combined with the climate impacts that will arise before 2050: the scenarios predict a one-meter rise in sea level leading to the displacement of 7 million inhabitants and the flooding of areas where more than 14.2 million people live in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam.
The river itself is central to the relationships between inequalities in development and environmental damage: more than twenty hydroelectric dams are being built or are at the study phase in southern China, Laos, on the border between Laos and Thailand, and in Cambodia, with little concern for the externalities generated for neighboring countries – reduced or accelerated flow, supply in nutrients. In the long term, melting Himalayan glaciers could greatly affect the flow of the river and consequently the energy supply of the dams.
Ultimately, transportation and energy projects along this development corridor are making the basin better connected while endangering ecological balances.
Towards a science for the sustainability of the Mekong River Basin
Beyond these readily apparent observations, we must note a lack of truly integrated knowledge of the complex links between the environment and inequalities in the region.
In the systematic mapping study we have conducted, we attempt to draw up a comprehensive inventory of all the studies on the subject: 14,570 scientific and grey literature publications were collected and categorized by title and summary, 6,042 English papers were examined and in the end 2,355 were included in the systematic mapping. These articles were published between 1978 and 2020 and allow us to provide a comprehensive overview of empirical research carried out on the subject. Above all, they highlight perspectives to move towards a science of sustainability in the Mekong River Basin, that will include environmental, social and economic perspectives.
The first observation is that research into these transdisciplinary themes is largely underfunded, in particular in Cambodia and Laos. Furthermore, some categories of the population are understudied: the poor suburban and urban classes, women, migrants and even refugees. The scientific literature also makes little mention of environmental dynamics such as changes to agriculture driven by foreign investments for export purposes, biodiversity losses more broadly, or even health problems, although the current crisis does show their crucial importance.
Ultimately, this mapping work seems to call for a less fragmented, more integrated regional and disciplinary approach to the question of the links between environmental damage and inequality dynamics in the region. It is only by turning towards a science of sustainability on the scale of the Mekong River Basin as a whole that knowledge can hope to stimulate dialog on the public policies to be implemented.
Inequalities are under the spotlight. From a central point of the 2030 Agenda and their identification as one of the key challenges for the 21st century and to the role they played in recent uprisings around the Globe (France, Chile, Ecuador…), inequalities are a pervasive phenomenon which tend to shape our societies. Moreover, the current pandemic has resulted in an increase of billionaires’ wealth and, in the same time, pushed 130 million people into extreme poverty, thus increasing global inequalities. But while inequalities seem everywhere, its measurement and analysis are often complex…
How do perceptions shape solidarity? What are the links between inequalities and global warming? What does access to water tell us about urban inequalities? And what was the impact of Covid-19 on inequalities? Through Mexico, Bolivia and passing through Burkina Faso, our series “Understanding inequalities” aims at providing some simple answers to those intricate questions.
The way that people look at the world is dramatically shaped by their own lived experiences. People make sense of the world in their own way. Their perceptions inform their actions, and therefore it is essential that these perceptions stem from a place of knowledge and truth.