It is strange to look out across the Mekong River and realize that the people fishing on the far bank are in a different country. What struck me the hardest when Pi Suwit, a local activist, spoke with us was his description of the unity among the people who share this particular water resource. Though Laos and Thailand are both on hard-hitting campaigns to to breed national loyalty, these people still speak the same language, come from the same families, and often worship together in the same temples. Beyond the familial and ethnic link, these people are also linked by a shared livelihood based on a river about which decisions are constantly being made that they have no to power to influence.
The whole issue of transboundary resource management is super interesting and convoluted, especially in the case of the Mekong. It is the world's second-most biodiverse river and because of its geographic location/political situation is a potential major trade route for countries like China (who, interestingly, has opted out of participation in the Mekong Basin Committee). Pi Suwit mentioned some of the sneaky ways China has been power-mongering along the Mekong in recent years. For one, there are now 300,000 Chinese people living in Laos, a country with a population of only a couple million. The second major way China is able to gain power in the region is by pumping money into poorer countries in the form of development investments. Thailand is also using this tactic. In fact, apparently the first cargo railroad between Laos and Thailand was completed last month and one can see trains loaded with concrete and other construction materials heading into Laos every day.
I think the biggest problem with the transnational water management on the Mekong has to do with marginalized groups and their lack of political voice. As was described in "Governing Water as a Common Good in the Mekong River Basin" the real question is "whose common future?" Treating water as a commons will inevitably bring conflict as there will be competing uses and needs. But the way things are currently being managed makes one think that the countries governing the Mekong have no idea what the definition of "commons" is. Claims of local communities to use of the Mekong are systematically ignored. At best, their needs and concerns are considered, but are most often viewed as expendable. This is the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people we're talking about here.