China's role in Mekong River maintenance

Editor's note: This story comes from our partner, VietNamNet.

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Song Tao told participants in the Mekong River Council Summit in Hua Hin, Thailand on April 5 that China is willing to promote cooperation with downstream countries in mitigating droughts and floods, sharing hydrographic technology and information, exchange and training of hydrographic experts, etc.

This spring the water level in Southeast Asia’s longest river, the Mekong, has dropped to its lowest level in five decades. Since late 2009, China’s southwestern region and many places in four Mekong River Council (MRC) countries — Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam — have faced severe drought.

For the first time since its founding 15 years ago, the MRC organized a summit meeting. Present were the prime ministers of member countries and, as observers, high-ranking officials from China and Myanmar.

In this dry season, the story about the Mekong River is hotter than ever.

China’s officials at the summit stressed that China is also a “victim of severe drought.” They denied that China’s sequestration of water in upstream dams has caused any harm to the downstream countries.

Deputy Foreign Minister Song Tao emphasized that “statistics show that recent droughts in the Mekong River downstream are caused by severely dry weather. The Mekong River’s low water level is not related to hydro-power plants on the Lan Xang (China’s name for the upper part of Mekong River). China is also a victim of drought.”

To prove its cooperation with countries downstream, Song said, since mid-March China has supplied the data from its Jinghong and Manwan dams. China is ready to promote cooperation with the MRC and downstream countries, he emphasized.

The chief of the Agency for International Cooperation, Science and Technology of China’s Ministry for Water Resources spoke at a preliminary meeting, the Mekong River International Conference, on April 2-3. He said that the water level of the Mekong River has fallen to a record low because of drought and climate change. Only 13.5 percent of the Mekong flow, he said, comes from its upstream stretch, the Lan Xang. 

However, people living downstream, some international organizations concerned with water resource management, and environment activists said that the impacts of the construction of hydropower dams in China are undeniable.

China was also blamed for the scarcity of fish in the river because fish cannot swim through its dams.

China reasoned that its hydropower reservoirs are too small to keep back a huge volume of water. Moreover, they can help maintain water in the river at a constant level and prevent floods. The Chinese spokesmen conceded that it is important to have statistics about these dams. Data about water levels on the Lan Xang before and after the construction of the dams has not been released.

MRC Managing Director Jeremy Bird commented that this is the first time China has agreed to share data with downstream countries.

On the margins of the Mekong River International Conference, the acting director of Vietnam’s Southern Irrigation Planning Institute, Nguyen Ngoc Anh, expressed his view that the problem is not only unfortunate weather. China’s management of hydro-power reservoirs has exacerbated current problems, Anh said.

“Any activity in the Mekong River upstream impacts the downstream. Dams which hold water will make certain impacts, including impacts during impoundment of the water or impacts during operation of the dams. In 2003, as soon as China completed the construction of its Manwan Dam, Laos complained about drought caused by this work,” he said.

In 1986-1993, China built the Manwan Dam without consulting any of the downstream countries. It refused invitations to join the MRC, now would it provide information about projects on the upstream sections of the Mekong River.

It’s commitment at the MRC summit to cooperate is good, but experts say that China needs to do more than make promises.

This piece was written by Thai An, and originially appeared on VietNamNet.