A picture of the Mekong river in the northern Thai region of Nong Khai, bordering Laos

A picture of the Mekong river in the northern Thai region of Nong Khai, bordering Laos. Studies have shown that the Greater Mekong Region will urbanise faster than the UN’s standard annual urbanisation rate. (Photo: Panumas SANGUANWONG / AFP)

Urbanisation – An Overlooked Issue in the Mekong River Basin

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Rapid urbanisation and population growth have been overlooked factors contributing to environmental and ecological disruptions in the Mekong region.

China’s dam-building in the upper Mekong River has received much attention for its adverse effects in intensifying the likelihood of environmental disruptions such as flooding, droughts, and declining fish supply downstream. But what if damming is only one part of the Mekong River’s story of ecological degradation? There appears to be another underlying cause that has been overlooked – that of urbanisation.

Studies have shown that the Greater Mekong Region will urbanise faster than the United Nation’s standard annual urbanisation rate of 2.3 per cent due to the rapid establishment of manufacturing facilities and industrialisation in the urban areas. To put it simply, any city in the Mekong region with a population of 100,000 people today will likely grow to more than 120,000 people in 2030. 

The Mekong River, spanning more than 4,000 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau to the Southern Vietnam delta, is a busy trade route with critical economic bases that include farming, manufacturing, mining, and tourism. The basin is home to approximately 113 cities with a population of more than 10,000 people each (see Map). These include Phnom Penh, Can Tho, Vientiane, Buon Ma Thuot, Siem Reap, Nakhon Ratchasima, Battambang, Savannakhet, and many others. With a two per cent population growth scenario, these cities will be occupied by 11.5 million people in 2030, an increase from approximately 9.6 million today. 

This urban growth trajectory will no doubt increase the risk of environmental degradation. This is evident in the challenges of proper waste management. The growing populations in Mekong basin cities put a strain on waste management efforts, especially if the municipal capacity to manage waste is inadequate. The National Geographic found that the Mekong River carries approximately 40,000 tonnes of plastic waste into the ocean – enough to fill 200 football fields annually. 

The challenge of climate change and urbanisation will together exacerbate water scarcity, hitting the Mekong basin cities with a double whammy in environmental challenges. 

Secondly, rapid urbanisation in the Mekong basin will increase the growth of urban water usage due to household water consumption, giving rise to strains in urban water supplies. The Mekong River, the primary water resource in the lower Mekong Countries, has recently recorded the worst drought in the past 100 years due to an El Niño event, threatening food supply and agriculture production in the region. At the same time, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report has indicated with high confidence that climate change, land subsidence as well as human activities will result in more serious and long-lasting floods in the Mekong Delta. This will threaten Vietnam’s largest source of agricultural production as well as several cities with a combined urban population of over 2.8 million, including Can Tho, Long Xuyen and Soc Trang (see Map). The challenge of climate change and urbanisation will together exacerbate water scarcity, hitting the Mekong basin cities with a double whammy in environmental challenges. 

Further, cities in the Mekong basin will likely experience dramatic land-use changes due to exponential population growth. Assuming an increased demand for housing, public services, and industrial bases, the land conversion from green areas into built-up areas becomes unavoidable, causing cities to lose their ability to retain water in the monsoon season. The region will see more intense flooding if urban growth is not managed properly through robust spatial planning. The dynamic interplay between water scarcity and land-use change will leave the cities in the Mekong in a Catch-22: too little water during drought season, too much water during the monsoons.

Thus far, intergovernmental cooperation among the Mekong countries has started to address environmental degradation at large. For instance, the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental river-basin organisation established by the riparian states, has embarked on a joint collaboration to manage the Mekong River’s shared water resources and development. The Lancang Mekong Cooperation involving China and lower Mekong Countries helps to ease tensions between environmental concerns and the damming of the river.

However, Mekong governments have generally overlooked the impact of urbanisation in contributing to ecological degradation in the region. While national efforts to enhance urban climate resilience, such as the Mekong Urban Flood Resilience and Drainage Programme (2013-2019) have been implemented in Vietnam, no transboundary basin-wide urban growth management has been initiated so far. The Asian Development Bank’s study “Urban Development in the Greater Mekong Subregion” in 2016, which identified climate change and pollution as serious urban threats, can serve as a baseline to initiate more meaningful cooperation between city governments. ASEAN has also initiated the ASEAN Smart City Network (ASCN), providing a platform for local governments to exchange best practices among themselves. The network includes Mekong cities such as Luang Prabang, Phnom Penh, Battambang, Vientiane, and Ho Chi Minh City. 

To make cooperation more impactful, the Mekong countries need to initiate a holistic basin-wide urban growth management strategy. This can serve as a tool for cities in the Mekong Basin to manage their strategic economic aspirations while still addressing environmental protection and climate resilience. Starting from municipal collaboration to address urban growth and ecological issues could also formulate more democratic approaches and solutions at scale to address pressing environmental problems amid the intense geopolitical tensions in the Mekong Region.

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