This article examines how water resources are defined in relation to geopolitical dynamics, state-level economic development planning, and environmental conflicts, in the Mekong region (143). The authors use the Mekong region to illustrate how regions are defined by transboundary water basins or other environmental features, as well as how such regions are framed in relation to these three dynamics – economic, geopolitical, and environmental.
When designing effective governance processes, institutions, and policy that effectively balances development, social and ecological goals, it can be critical to understand the multiple ways that regions have been constructed (143). Though, it is important to understand that these framings of a region are often complementary, but also contradictory. The planned development of the Xayaburi dam illustrates how framings can be difficult to reconcile with one another.
The notion that ‘territory isn’t; it becomes’ is clearly at play in the Mekong region. The three ways the Mekong region has been defined – geopolitically, economically, and ecologically – sheds light on the multiple ways different scales of actors and stakeholders, as well as the discourses on water (as a development resource, or economic good, or environmental asset), seek to define the region. For instance, the way the Asian Development Bank defined the Mekong Region does not correspond to the spatial unit (ecological and hydrological boundaries) of the Mekong River watershed (144). The ADB’s defining of the region is thus a result of the geopolitical, economic, and biophysical networks and flows that interact to construct the region is a certain way (144).
The authors argue that human geographers must move beyond simply describing a region, towards a deeper understanding of what defines a region, and “explain the factors that create and sustain particular political, economic and cultural outcomes at particular times and in places that come to be comprehended as regions” (144). In a nutshell, we must understand the various ways that a region, territory, and place are defined, what has led to this framing of a region, and in what ways the “geologic, ecological, and hydrological processes” contribute to this framing (146).
Sneddon and Fox describe how the Mekong was a focal point for geopolitical processes during the Cold War, from the 1950s to the mid-1970s. More recently, they argue, the region has come to play a central role in contemporary geopolitics, built around the hegemonic position of China within the region (147). With their drive for greater development along the upper reaches of the Mekong, China holds great influence for how the region will be framed in the years ahead. Furlong (2006) speaks to this transformation of the Mekong, but from a slightly different perspective. Furlong also paints the Mekong as a focal point during the Cold War as a ‘front line’ between the world’s super powers, with a framing built on a hegemonic ideology of ‘securitization’. In contemporary times, however, the hegemonic ideology in the region is one of market liberalization, where the Mekong has become a ‘corridor of commerce’ (Furlong 2006, p. 443). From this perspective, the Mekong has been framed largely in a development and economic way, though undoubtedly, with geopolitics at play. This characterization, by both Furlong, and Sneddon and Fox illustrate the extent to which actions at various scales (global, regional) have been as instrumental in defining the region, as have – and perhaps more so- than local actors with limited influence and power.
The discussions on scale, framing, dam construction, and development of ‘regions’ as a place, is critical to reforming or designing governance approaches that find a balance between ecological resilience and integrity, with developmental processes that maintain livelihood security of a basin’s inhabitants. In this sense, the authors argue that a region can be defined in a plurality of ways, as opposed to only as a region of developmental (large scale) potential, as a battleground in geopolitics, or as an ecoregion that must be maintained at all costs.