Mounting Tensions over the Mekong River

Caixin Online 15 April 2010

By staff reporter Cao Haili


Countries bordering the Mekong River have let the criticism flow unimpeded over China's hydroelectric power expansion

There have long been heated disagreements over the Mekong between China and its five Southeast Asian neighbors who share the river, but this year's drought has pumped up the need for more transparent regional relations.

Drought in three southwestern Chinese provinces has resulted in heavy economic losses this year. On the other side of the water's edge, 65 million Southeast Asians who depend on the river for their survival have experienced the lowest water levels in 50 years. The Chinese government has attributed this year's exceptionally dry spell to climate change. However, many residents of the Mekong Valley think that the construction of multiple hydroelectric dams on the Lancang, the Chinese river that feeds into the Mekong, have intensified the natural disaster.

The controversy started back in 1992 with the construction of the first dam built on the Lancang, the Manwan Dam. Since then, the planning of bigger hydroelectric projects has been relentless. In 2008, when several countries on the Mekong suffered record flooding, Chinese dams took the brunt of the blame.

One Chinese academic in the field of Chinese-Southeast Asian relations has argued that outside of purely technical arguments – that dams clearly have an effect on lower reaches of a river – it is also important to analyze the problem on a social level. First, in the eyes of most Southeast Asians, their northern neighbor is a governmental behemoth, a giant that happens to be planted on the upper reaches of their precious river.

In addition, many Southeast Asians have come under the influence of non-governmental organizations, which have brought about a sense of distrust toward China.

Likely owing to fears over diplomatic headaches that could stem from aggravated disputes over the Mekong, the Chinese government sent out a delegation to the first Summit of the Mekong River Commission. Subsequently, China has agreed to strengthen cooperation with its regional partners on river issues and provide dry season data from two major hydrological stations on the Lancang, Jinghong and Man'an.

Concessions made by China marked an achievement for the summit. The Mekong River Commission, established in 1995, currently comprises four member nations: Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. China and Myanmar, which is governed by a military junta, have both declined numerous invitations to join.

The executive officer of the Commission, British citizen Jeremy Bird, said in an interview that he supports the Chinese explanation of the drought and does not think that China's dams are to blame for the water shortages downstream. He further called China's move to contribute its dry season hydrological data, "very positive news."

China plans to build a total of eight dams on the Lancang, three of which are already finished. Of the remaining, the dam at Xiaowan, currently the world's tallest arch dam under construction at 294.5 meters, is scheduled to be completed next year. The countries along the Mekong all hope that China will provide hydrological data from Xiaowan, since that dam's great water storage capacity will have more of an effect on the downstream flow of the river than all the other dams put together.

In recent years, international disputes over rivers originating in China have escalated. The 2005 Songhua River pollution incident, when dangerous levels of benzene were detected in the northern river that flows into Russia, was a big lesson for China. On the dam building issue, China has received great pressure from Southeast Asia and South Asia, particularly from Thailand and India, where non-governmental organizations play a large role in public life.

China has already begun to change. Several years ago, China began providing limited rainy season hydrological data about its dams. Last year, the National Development and Reform Commission held a conference on the Mekong river valley and allowed some foreign non-governmental organizations to attend the meeting and raise issues.

However, China has only just begun to deal with the crisis of cross-border river disputes. As of right now, the Chinese government's actions have essentially been limited to interactions at the national level with affected countries. China has not yet conducted any field investigations of the effects on people inhabiting the rivers' flood zones, and it needs more interactions with non-governmental organizations. In the end, home to the origins of several cross-border rivers, China has a responsibility to both environmental protection and sustainable development.

 

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