Mekong in danger of soon becoming 'Chinese river'

The Nation 13 August 2010

Plans to build hydropower dams on the upper Mekong will turn Southeast Asia's longest waterway into a "Chinese river", the regional head of the US-based Stimson Centre has warned.

China has already built four hydropower dams on the upper Mekong River in Yunnan province and plans another four, despite the unknown impact on downstream nations Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and Vietnam.

"Unless all six countries get together and work through this issue, the likelihood is this river will become a Chinese river," said Richard Cronin, who heads the Southeast programme of the Stimson Centre, a US-based think tank that focuses on global security issues.

The centre recently published a paper titled Mekong Tipping Point that highlights the human security and political instability threats posed by the four planned hydropower stations in China and 11 on the lower Mekong.

Past efforts to build hydropower dams were hampered by the Vietnam War in the 1960s and '70s, and thereafter by multilateral bickering.

China, however, has built a cascade of dams on the upper reaches of the river, primarily for electricity generation.

"Ideally, China should stop with the four dams it has built, operate them with transparency, and the dams should not be built on the lower Mekong," Cronin said.

He warned that if China's cascade of dams was built, they could halt up to 70 per cent of the silt that is normally carried by the river to the lower Mekong countries, depriving them of nutrients.


Dams built on the lower Mekong would have an even greater impact on food security.

The Mekong, which flows from the Tibetan Plateau to southern Vietnam, rivals the Amazon in terms of the quantity of fish and aquaculture, and feeds and employs up to 60 million people in the region.

Dams in southern Laos and Cambodia would have an immediate impact on the migratory patterns of fisheries, the study warned.

China's upstream dams became a political issue earlier this year, when the entire region suffered a severe drought. Several non-governmental organisations blamed China for exacerbating the drought by controlling the river's flow.

China refuted the accusations, providing data on its dams' intake and outflow during the period, but it has yet to devise a transparent system by which Southeast Asia is kept appraised of its upriver activities.