Managing the Mekong: Hydropolitics and transboundary water governance in China


 Project overview

With 110 international rivers originating in China, the country is known as Asia’s  ‘lifeblood’ and ‘water tower’. Often called the world’s ‘Third Pole’, the Tibetan Plateau is home to the headwaters of transboundary rivers that support the downstream ecology, lives and livelihoods of nearly one-third of the world’s population (Dyhrenfurth 2011). These river basins are often understood as vital sources of regional economic development, livelihoods and biodiversity (Sneddon and Fox 2006). Because control of major river basins lies in headwater territories, China is known as an ‘upstream superpower’ (Nickem 2008). Yunnan Province, which borders Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam in southwestern China, contains the upper reaches of five major international river systems that originate on the Plateau. The province has been conceptualized as a vital powershed (Magee 2006) because it supplies energy to industrial centers in eastern China. It is, thus, enmeshed in complex resource politics (Henning et al 2016) that extend beyond the immediate boundaries of the river basin. The upper reaches of the 2,700-mile Mekong River (known as the Lancang in China), originate high on the Plateau and run southeast through Yunnan before weaving across borders in Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam (see map). The transboundary nature of these river basins, as well as competing needs of water, from energy to agriculture to economic development, makes its governance especially complex (Sneddon and Fox 2006). Recognition of the complexities of this vast hydrosocial landscape is imperative given the many contested priorities.

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The Lancang-Mekong Cooperative

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ThE Lancang-MeKong Basin