IPS 17 March 2010
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
BANGKOK, Mar 17, 2010 (IPS) - As the water level in the Mekong River dips to a record 50-year low, a familiar pattern of fault-finding has risen to the surface. China, the regional giant through which parts of South-east Asia’s largest waterway flows through, is again at the receiving end of verbal salvoes from its neighbours.
Environmentalists and sections of the regional media are blaming the Chinese dams being built or operating on the upper reaches of the Mekong for contributing to the dramatic drop in water levels that are affecting communities in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, the lower Mekong countries.
"Changes to the Mekong River’s daily hydrology and sediment load since the early 1990s have already been linked to the operation of the (Chinese) dam cascade by academics," states the Save the Mekong Coalition, a Bangkok-based network of activists and grassroots groups. "Communities downstream in northern Thailand, Burma and Laos have suffered loss of fish and aquatic plant resources impacting local economies and livelihoods."
Newspapers in Thailand, which are freer and feistier than those in other countries across the region, have been more blunt. "China is fast failing the good-neighbour test in the current Mekong River crisis," argued the English- language daily ‘Bangkok Post’ in a recent editorial. "The trouble is China’s unilateral decision to harness the Mekong with eight hydroelectric dams."
Stung by this latest barrage of criticism, China has taken the unusual step of breaking its silence to mount its own defence, placing the blame for the drop in the Mekong River’s levels to the unusually harsh drought across this region.
As part of this shift in diplomacy to engage with the lower Mekong countries, one of Beijing’s envoys reminded critics that the water from China’s portion of the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang, accounts for less than a fifth of the volume of water in the river.
Therefore, his argument goes, what China does upstream cannot have such a big impact on water levels downstream.
"The average annual runoff volume of the Lancang River at the outbound point (of China) is approximately 64 billion cubic metres, accounting for only 13.5 percent of Mekong’s runoff volume at the (South China) sea outlet," Chen Dehai of the Chinese embassy in Bangkok said at a press conference.
Chen’s defence came days after Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue told Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva during a visit to Bangkok that the upstream dams were not the reason for drop in water levels. "China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong," Hu was reported to have said, according to the Thai media.
Beijing’s attribution of low water levels to the drought, instead of its dams, has been endorsed by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter- governmental body that manages the river basin. "At this point we have no direct evidence that the drop in water levels is caused by the Chinese dams," said Damian Kean, communications adviser to the MRC.
"There was very low rainfall during the wet season, which ended four weeks earlier than normal, in October," Kean added during a telephone interview from Vientiane, the Lao capital, where the MRC is based. "MRC analysis has concluded that the current dry period and subsequent low water levels in the Mekong Basin were caused by some of the lowest rainfall in the region in over 50 years."
But this does not wash with environmentalists like Carl Middleton, who argue that China’s lack of transparency about the volume of water it lets flow south has fed the suspicion that its dams are making current crisis worse. "If the dams are not contributing to loss of water level in the Mekong, then China should publicly release information of water level flows," he told IPS.
"The Chinese have not disclosed information about the operations of its dams on the Mekong," added Middleton, the Mekong programme coordinator of International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental lobby. "You need proper information and data to manage a river basin."
Although China does not supply information to the MRC about dry-season water flows, it has, after years of silence, been more forthcoming about hydrological information during the wet season, when there are floods. This followed the first agreement Beijing signed with the MRC in 2002.
China’s reluctance to cooperate with the MRC stems from it being an observer, rather than a member of the body, and therefore not bound by its agreements. Military-ruled Burma, or Myanmar, is the other observer in the commission, which groups Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.
The 4,660-kilometre long Mekong river flows from the Tibetan plateau, through southern China’s Yunnan province, and passes Burma before journeying through the Mekong Basin shared by the four MRC members to empty out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam. Nearly 80 percent of the water that reaches the basin flows from tributaries in the lower Mekong.
China has already completed four of a cascade of eight dams, with the Xiaowan Dam, whose reservoir began harnessing the Mekong’s waters in October 2009, being described as "the world’s highest arch dam."
But disquiet about the dams and their impact on the Mekong River’s ecosystem and fish catch has been rising since the first of these dams, the Manwan, came on line in 1992. Fishing is the main source of livelihood for the 60 million people living in the Mekong Basin, and the annual income from fisheries in the lower Mekong is between two to three billion U.S. dollars.
The year the Manwan dam began operations also saw a severe drought and drop in the Mekong’s water level, giving rise to the argument local communities and activists have held on to for nearly two decades – that China’s dams are linked to dramatic and erratic dips in the river’s water levels.
"The local communities along the river banks in northern Thailand believe that the change in the water levels began after the Chinese dams," says Montree Chantavong of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance, a Bangkok-based environmental lobby. "It has impacted their fisheries activity."