The Mekong: A Flood of Worry About The Impact of China’s Dams

Via Japan Focus, a detailed look at the impact that major floods of the Mekong have had upon Southeast Asia, not only in an environmental/economic sense, but also from a political perspective. Many countries are asking whether China is responsible for the heavy flood damage, as its cascade of dams on the Mekong have been blamed for holding back the natural flow of water and intensifying the historic patterns of flooding. As the article notes:

As Mekong River floodwaters in Laos and Thailand recede, indignation with China for its lack of transparency on upstream dam developments is on the rise. China has recently pursued a friendly policy of economic integration with Southeast Asian neighbors but in relation to Mekong River development it has taken what many see as a covetous and less than neighborly approach.

The Mekong in Laos

The larger cost has been diplomatic, as downstream neighbors suspect rightly or wrongly that Chinese dams were primarily responsible for the flooding. From the hard-hit Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong districts of Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province to its eastern Mukdahan province, many Thais believe waters released from the reservoirs of three upstream Chinese dams swelled the runoff from heavy rainfalls. They also blame China’s recent blasting and dredging of upstream river rapids to make the river navigable for large cargo vessels for rising water levels.

Map of Chinese dams on the Lancang (Mekong)

That may or may not be the case, but China’s lack of transparency is fueling suspicions. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a multinational grouping made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam responsible for sustainable development and water resource management of the Mekong, said in a statement that the high water levels were the result of above average rainfall and not the result of upstream Chinese dams opening sluice gates. The situation was compounded by tropical storm Kammuri, which hit the region between August 8 and 10, the statement said.

The MRC also noted that just half of the flood waters in Vientiane originated in China with the rest from Mekong tributaries, namely the Nam Ou and Nam Khan rivers. It concluded, “The current water levels are entirely the result of the meteorological and hydrological conditions and were not caused by water release from presently operating Chinese dams which have storage areas far too small to affect the flood hydrology of the Mekong,” the statement said.

That view was supported by Thailand’s Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej and the Thai Water Resources Department, which oversees Mekong water flows and Lao government officials also said Chinese dams are not at fault. Heavy rains had lashed Myanmar and Vietnam – lending credence to the nation’s views – resulting in severe flooding that killed at least 130 in northern Vietnam and forced thousands from their homes in both countries. But the Thai People’s Network on the Mekong, a grouping of several Thai environmental organizations, openly rejected the MRC’s reasoning for the floods in an August 16 statement, calling for China to free up information on its dams. There also appears to be lingering doubts among some top government officials.

…China has so far completed three dams across the upper Mekong – the Manwan in 1993, the Dachaoshan in 2002 and the Jinghong in June of this year. The three dams have respective storage capacities of 920 million, 890 million and 1.2 billion cubic meters, meaning a total of over 3 billion cubic meters of reservoir. This is enough, environmentalists say, to significantly influence water flows on the upper Mekong. Chinese officials have countered that since only 18% of the Mekong’s flow originates in its areas, the dams will not have an effect on the volume of water flowing downstream.

China’s grand vision for the Mekong is to build up to fifteen power-generating dams on its upper reaches to fuel economic growth in its laggard southwestern territories. The Xiaowan dam, the world’s tallest at 292 meters, is slated for completion on the upper Mekong in 2013. Scheduled to generate over 4,000 megawatts of electricity, that particular hydropower dam has downstream Southeast Asia concerned about the massive reservoir the dam is expected to create and its anticipated impact on river water levels. Chinese officials have said the 190 square kilometer reservoir will reduce the amount of water flowing downward by 17% during flood seasons and increase the flow by 40% in dry seasons.

…China’s lack of cooperation and responsibility is seemingly at odds with its broader soft power policy of forging greater economic integration with Southeast Asia, including through preferential free trade agreements and generous infrastructure loans. Seen from Beijing’s point of view, its participation in the Greater Mekong Subregion is less about an altruistic desire to see its southern neighbors develop and more about gaining access to export markets for its industrial and agricultural goods and securing a strategic, alternative passage for fuel and other imports for its inland industries.

China is not a member of the MRC and critics say that without Beijing’s participation the grouping is powerless to accomplish organizational goals related to sustainable development on the Mekong. If China were to join, it would have to conform to various mandatory standards and come under pressure to accept water management norms that are less harmful to downstream communities, a prospect it clearly wants to avoid.

The MRC has however recently incorporated China and Myanmar to some extent, as non-member, dialogue partners. While the MRC’s most northerly monitoring station is in Chiang Saen, Thailand, in 2002 it convinced China to commit to exchanging some information from two of its monitoring stations, including the Jinghong station located below its three standing dams. Flood forecasting first became an issue after floods in 2000 killed some 800 people in the Mekong Delta. In 2005, China agreed to hold technical discussions with the MRC, including flood management and alleviation.

….Of course cross-border river issues pose diplomatic problems and challenges in many regions of the world. Although a Law of the Sea treaty exists to govern disputes on the world’s oceans, there is no comparable global law for rivers to mediate disputes over water resources. Until such a mechanism exists, and more importantly until China agrees to a more multilateral approach to managing the Mekong, the issue will remain a contentious one with its Southeast Asian neighbors while life for people living along the river’s shifting banks will remain highly uncertain.

This entry was posted on Sunday, August 31st, 2008 at 2:22 pm and is filed under China, Laos, Mekong River, Thailand, Vietnam.  You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.  Both comments and pings are currently closed. 

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