Food security is a matter of national security. So said an erstwhile official of an agency involved in ensuring rice on every Filipino table, who was ousted purportedly on a whiff of corruption. The incident is unfortunate, but it pales in comparison to a brewing interstate controversy in Southeast Asia that might potentially affect rice sufficiency in the Philippines. The influx of Mekong rice is being threatened by infrastructure developments in a country upstream of the Mekong River.
Laos and Cambodia are Southeast Asian neighbors. They share a similar historic past as former French colonies. They even share French-inspired words or probably architecture and, enviably, cuisine. Laos is situated north of Cambodia and the river, the great Mekong that feeds the water needs of Cambodia, only does so after satisfying the needs of Laos. In other words, Laotians get to bathe first in the Mekong before the Cambodians. The same great river irrigates the vast rice lands of Vietnam and Thailand, which are the rice hegemons in Southeast Asia. The Philippines largely depends for her people’s glucose shots on Thailand and Vietnam.
Finding a way to share the resource-rich Mekong River remains one of Southeast Asia’s most elusive goals. Herbertson in “The Mekong Dams Dispute: Four Trends to Watch” reports: “Eleven dams are planned on the lower stretch of the river. These dams would bring their proponents a great deal of revenue, but would threaten the food security of millions of people, most of whom would never see the benefits of the dams. Back in 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam signed a treaty to create the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose mission is to promote shared use of the river. The MRC’s first big test came in 2010 after Laos proposed to build the Xayaburi Dam. The consultations did not resolve disagreements over the project, and in 2012, Laos and Thailand defied neighboring governments and decided to proceed with the dam, despite ongoing opposition from Cambodia and Vietnam. Early work is now beginning in Laos on the second Mekong hydropower project, called the Don Sahong Dam. With two projects underway at speeds faster than the MRC diplomatic process can manage, the future of Mekong cooperation is uncertain. There is a risk that the dispute over the Mekong dams will escalate: not everyone can win, and the tradeoffs will be enormous. Billions of dollars are at stake, but so are the livelihoods of millions of people.”
Disputes on river infrastructure arise not only from the interstate dependency on the Mekong but also from the biological integrity and sustainable management of the basin’s terrestrial and freshwater resources. These issues confront the Mekong countries.
The Philippines should be on the lookout for developments in the Mekong dam projects because they will impact on its food sufficiency. While there is still time, the Philippines should consider alternatives in addressing a potential decline in rice production in Thailand and Vietnam, and therefore higher rice prices. This is an issue for the Philippines that might arise from a potential water crisis in the Mekong countries involving the common utilization of their freshwater resource.
The water issues in Mekong will be far from over because of the diversified and conflicting interests of riparian countries, both downstream and upstream. These issues could potentially ripen later into an interstate water crisis for these riparian countries. It would thus be strategic for the Philippines, whose rice sufficiency depends on Thailand and Vietnam, to be proactive in addressing a potential loss of the source of reasonably priced staple food for Filipinos. Rice shortage and a spike in rice prices could spell trouble for the Philippines and create an opportunity for importers and public officials out to make a fast buck.
Frank E. Lobrigo practiced law for 20 years. He is a law lecturer and JSD student at San Beda College Graduate School of Law in Manila.
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