Response from Beijing needed

Bangkok Post 10 March 2010


China is fast failing the good-neighbour test in the current Mekong River crisis. With the vital waterway at its lowest point in a generation, officials in both Beijing and the provinces are not participating in the search for solutions to this problem. It is not a new phenomenon. For close to a decade, there has been widespread criticism of China's actions along the Mekong. The current emergency, with millions of lives affected, simply adds urgency to the problem.

The trouble is China's unilateral decision to harness the Mekong with eight hydro-electric dams. Four of them are already in operation. Since the first dams were built, the Mekong's ebbs and flows have changed. It has not been proved scientifically that the Chinese dams are the cause of this, or one of the causes. What is extremely troubling and frustrating, however, is the lackadaisical and repetitious denials by Chinese officials.

At the very least, China should be an active participant in aggressive studies about the Mekong River. The waterway starts in China, flows through six countries and vastly affects the economy, culture and way of life of each of those nations, far back from the banks of the river itself. Farmers, fishermen and tradesmen literally depend on the river for their lives. But the action of the Mekong has changed since China began constructing its dams. The highs of the river have been higher, causing vast flooding. This year's low river level has caused great hardship in a year when rainfall has been scarce and El Nino is expected to worsen the annual drought.

A group called the Mekong Commission, formed during the Vietnam War years, is supposed to help to manage the use of this river for all. The Commission reported the virtual emergency of a low water level recently, but waved off any suggestions that the Chinese dams played a role. Last year's rainy season was short and dry, the Commission said curtly. Meteorologist Smith Dharmasaroja, head of the National Disaster Warning Centre, added confusion by blaming global warming, and then by blaming El Nino.

Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has taken a curious stand in this national emergency and potential disaster. He said he was sure the Chinese would help to address the problem. Last Sunday, he sounded only slightly more assuring when he promised to ask Beijing to help manage the water flow along the river better. But those requests have gone in one Beijing ear and out the other for years. In 2003, Finnish researchers proved that a single dam in China cut the sediment at Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province. Their report predicted less flooding of the Mekong, slow degradation of the river's fish population - and an overall lower level of the river. This is what seems to have happened.

The problems with the Mekong have grown so great, so quickly, that Chiang Rai residents plan to protest at the Chinese embassy. In northern Thailand, river commerce has basically halted, and the region's economy is threatened.

The concern of the people in the North and Northeast about their river, as well as in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, should be moving governments to action, not just citizens' groups.

China should be leading the effort to find out what is happening on the Mekong. Studies involving citizens and businesses, as well as governments, should focus on the dams, weather and more.It is clear that the Mekong River is being poorly managed, and particularly upstream by China. This must change quickly.