Asia Times 13 March 2010
By Brian McCartan
VIENTIANE - Low water levels on the upper Mekong River have renewed criticism over hydropower dams China has erected on the waterway's upper reaches. Environmental groups and governments have pinned blame on China's inward-looking water management policies, although some experts say the real culprit is unusually severe drought conditions in southwestern China, northern Thailand and Laos.
Chinese authorities have said water levels in the country are at their lowest in 50 years, and they reject as groundless reports blaming their dams for the parched state of the river. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental body that promotes and coordinates sustainable management and development of the Mekong River basin, said in a February 26 statement that levels in the upper Mekong are lower than in 1993, which came on the heels of the most serious regional drought on record in 1992.
Although Beijing says it takes into account the needs of downstream countries and has set up joint monitoring stations along the river, there is still considerable doubt about its sincerity in maintaining the river's normal flow. The MRC, for its part, has little direct leverage over Beijing, leaving member countries to approach China either through the United Nations or their individual diplomatic missions.
Underscoring the heightened tensions, a March 3 MRC meeting held in Laos' old royal capital of Luang Prabang agreed to send an official letter to Beijing's representative at the United Nations to seek its cooperation in finding a solution to the Mekong's low flow. It marked the first time that the MRC sent an official letter of complaint to China.
Thailand has been particularly vocal, calling for the four MRC members - that is, itself, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - to apply bilateral diplomatic pressure on Beijing through their respective foreign ministries. During a weekly television address on March 7, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said "we'll ask China to help manage the water flow along the river better so countries in Southeast Asia would not be affected".
The low water levels, including certain stretches which have completely dried up, have all but stopped shipping on the Mekong. The river is a fast emerging major cargo route between the southern Chinese city of Jinghong and the northern Thai town of Chiang Saen, where a new river port is currently under construction. From there cargo is carried into Thailand and the rest of Southeast Asia.
The route is expected to be an important trade link in the implementation of the new China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. The agreement, which came into force in January, will pave the way for closer economic integration between Southeast Asia and China, an area with a combined population of 1.9 billion people and a combined gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$6 trillion.
By mid-February, over 20 Chinese cargo vessels were grounded in the section of the river that borders Myanmar and Laos. The vessels were later pulled to higher waters or into ports in Thailand. Four days later, China's Marine Affairs Bureau in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture had in response to the low water levels stopped issuing permits for vessels to travel south.
According to Chiang Saen's customs department, an estimated $4.6 million worth of cargo has been left stranded on the river. To bypass the dried-up Mekong, shippers have turned to the recently completed Route 3 roadway, which links Jinghong with northern Thailand through northwestern Laos. As many as 50 trailer trucks per day are now using the road when just a few months ago that number was around 50 per month.
The low water has also affected the availability of drinking water and irrigation for dry season crops. The MRC says the situation is particularly acute in the northern provinces of Laos and Thailand, areas that are already among the poorest in both countries. In Laos, irrigation systems and pumping stations for drinking water have been affected in Vientiane, Borikhamxay and Khammuan provinces. In Luang Prabang, there are reports of drinking water shortages, with only the tourist area in the city center receiving 24-hour service.
According to the MRC, water levels are expected to diminish further over the next month before rising again in late April or early May. Agrarians, environmental groups and affected citizens in Thailand have been quick to point the finger at China for the lack of water. The Save the Mekong Coalition and other environmental groups have said that China's dams on the upper Mekong are to blame for the unusually low water levels.
Four major dams have been built on the Mekong's upper reaches in China and another four are planned. Those completed include the Xiaowan dam, which began storing water in its reservoir in October. It is the second-largest hydroelectric dam in China after the Three Gorges Dam. Of the four planned dams, the Nuozhadu is expected to be completed in 2014 and will hold back even more water in order to generate 5,000 megawatts (MW) of power, the most of any of the eight dams.
It's not the first time that China's dams have generated downstream tensions. Environmentalists say that there have been unusual water flows on the Mekong ever since the first of the eight dams planned by China became operational in 1993. They often claim that Chinese dam construction has disrupted river traffic, has impacted adversely on fisheries and endangering some species, including the Mekong dolphin and the manatee, and has caused river blockages that hinder fish from swimming upriver to spawn.
Floods in 2008, which caused severe damage in Laos Thailand, were also blamed in part on China's dams - an accusation China likewise rejected. Some experts say that fluctuations in water levels are to be expected during dam construction and may cause lower water levels during the current dry season. In the longer-term, however, they say China's dams could actually be of benefit during drought conditions because of their capacity to release water downstream. China's dams will eventually be able to increase dry season water flow by as much as 30%-40%, if Beijing so chooses.
Hydroelectric dams along the river are designed to store water in the wet season and release it during the dry season to generate electricity. An MRC report on March 5 indicated that China's dam operations in early and mid-January may have actually delayed the onset of low water conditions downstream experienced since the later part of that month.
Beijing insists that the situation is a result of a severe drought conditions in southwest China and not its dam operations. Southwestern Yunnan has been the hardest hit province, but Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Chongqing have also been affected. The drought was brought on by a lack of rainfall and high temperatures, and is not expected to end until the rainy season begins in May.
Chinese authorities say that 7.5 million people and more than 4 million livestock are now suffering from inadequate water supplies in Yunnan and Guizhou provinces. Yunnan's governor, Qin Guangrong, told a drought relief meeting on February 23 that those numbers could climb to 7.92 million people in March, 9.51 million and April and 10.14 million by May. In February, Yunnan provincial authorities reported that 187 forest fires caused by the drought had been extinguished since November.
China's Ministry of Agriculture announced on Sunday that the drought had affected 4.09 million hectares of farmland by March 5. About 2.20 million of those hectares have been seriously affected. Although the area is not a major grain-growing region, it is China's second-largest producer of rubber and sugarcane. Government figures say the drought could reduce sugar production by 12% this year, leaving an amount insufficient to meet China's domestic demand. Preliminary government estimates indicate that the drought has caused $1.4 billion in losses.
The MRC and Thailand's National Disaster Warning Center have backed Beijing's meteorological explanation for the Mekong's low flows. They both have said that it is too early to conclusively link low water levels to China's dam construction and operations. In a recent statement, the MRC said the situation is the "result of drought conditions in northern Thailand and Lao PDR [People's Democratic Republic] and are part of a wider regional drought being experienced upstream in Yunnan province in China."
A MRC spokesman based at its secretariat in Vientiane told Asia Times Online that MRC figures indicate that monthly precipitation has been significantly below average since September 2009. Mekong tributaries, such as the Nam Ou and Nam Khan in Laos, are also experiencing low water levels; the lowest in 20 years for the Nam Ou and the lowest in 50 years for the Nam Khan, according to the MRC spokesman. Water levels in Vientiane during the rainy season were the fifth-lowest on record in the past 98 years
In Thailand, all 17 districts of northeastern Nong Khai province have been declared drought-hit areas. Water levels in major Thai dams are well below 50%, and the Royal Irrigation Department has warned that reserves in certain areas are at critical levels. Many farmers are worried that they may not have enough water for their dry season crops.
While northern Thailand and Laos are clearly suffering from drought conditions, some observers note that Beijing's frequent claims that only 14% of the Mekong's flow originates in China are somewhat misleading. That figure, they say, is a percentage of the total flow that, after snaking through Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, eventually empties into the South China Sea. The percentage of Mekong water that must pass through China before reaching northern Thailand and Laos is nearly 100%, they say.
China's unwillingness to release detailed information about its dams, which it considers a national security issue and thus not open to public disclosure, has long bred suspicion among downstream countries. China has thus not formally joined the MRC, but along with Myanmar has been a dialogue partner to the grouping since 1996.
In the absence of greater transparency from China, observers are left to wonder how much water is currently held behind China's Mekong dams after the long drought and low rainfall suffered across the region in 2009. Additionally, they contend that it is unlikely China would be willing to release additional water beyond what is necessary for electricity generation while the current drought continues.
In response to the criticism, China extended invitations this week for Mekong country representatives to visit its Jinghong dam later this month. Some viewed this as an encouraging step towards more transparency and multilateral cooperation, but detractors say that without a truly inclusive and empowered MRC, downstream countries will remain in the dark and vulnerable to China's secretive water management.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.