Dams or Drought: An Interview

RFA 24 August 2010

Milton Osborne discusses China's influence on its southern neighbors along the Mekong River.

Chinese dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong River are sometimes thought to be responsible for lowered water levels in countries downstream. Here, Australian historian, author, and Southeast Asian affairs consultant Milton Osborne addresses this question in an interview.

April 2010 marked a new low for water levels in the Mekong River. Communities in Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong in northern Thailand who spoke with RFA attributed receding waters to the filling of the Xiaowan dam in Yunnan province, China. We asked Milton Osborne whether there could be a direct correlation between the new Chinese mega-dam and the Mekong downstream in northern Thailand.

“I’ve not been to see the dam. And indeed that’s one of the problems about any discussion at the moment—the fact that neither the Southeast Asian governments—the Mekong Basin governments—nor nongovernmental organization representatives have been able to go and see the dams in person. So my view has to depend on what various people tell me.

"Chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission Jeremy Bird’s judgment is that the dam, the Xiaowan dam, is not to blame for the low water levels. Since July of last year, we’ve had a really horrendous drought. And that’s really the issue.

“People who have been closely associated with the Mekong over many years, both on the Mekong River Commission and as independent scientists, generally endorse Jeremy Bird’s view. But we simply don’t have the data one way or another to be sure. So it is still an open question. But the best opinion is that the dam probably is not to blame, and that what we’re seeing is a natural event."

Many working on Mekong issues in the region say that downstream countries don’t know what’s happening upstream. And as China and Burma have yet to join the Mekong River Commission, there is no formal structure in place for sharing river information. Is there a lack of information sharing in the region?

“Of course, the sharing of information is terribly important, and the Chinese have not done themselves any favors by being hesitant about sharing information in the past. Some two or three years ago, they agreed for the first time to share information during the flooding period of the year. Previously, they’d give information on flood levels within their own area where the Mekong flows. And they have now agreed to give information, at least for the moment, in the dry season too.

"But there’s another way in which the Chinese have not done themselves any favors, and that is that they have insisted on saying—at least until very recently—‘We can’t be blamed for what’s happening, (a) because there’s been a drought, and (b) because only 12.5 or 13 or 14 percent of the water that flows into the Mekong comes from China.’

“I saw an interesting example of  how this particular statistic is used, shortly before I set off overseas in April. At the Lowy Institute we had a visit from a number of very senior Chinese advisers to the Chinese Foreign Ministry. And this figure of only 12 or only 14 percent of the water flowing into the Mekong was trotted out by the very senior members of the delegation. But of course it’s a nonsense. And I was bold enough to point that out to them, although I don’t think I used that word.

“The point is that during the dry season, upwards of 40 percent of the water in the Mekong at Vientiane is water that’s come from China. And even as far down as the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia, somewhere around about 10 percent of the water in the lake is water that has come from China. So it is not clear whether or not the Chinese fully appreciate just how misleading their statements have been, or whether the people who make these statements in relation to the dams in China are not really attuned to ecological and environmental issues, because they’re all hydrologists, water engineers. Issues of  ecology downstream are things that they really don’t understand.”

Your association with the region goes back 51 years. Please tell us about this.

“I was posted to Cambodia as a young Australian diplomat in 1959. I knew very little about Cambodia or the Mekong River at that time, and I came to know the nature of the region in the two and a half years I first spent living in Phnom Penh. I sailed on the river, I swam in it, I water-skiied on it. I didn’t know very much about its character in terms of the environment and ecology. But I knew it was essential to the people of the countries through which it flowed. I was very much aware of the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and the enormous production of agriculture that came from that region.

“When I decided after my posting in Phnom Penh that I was probably not cut out to be a diplomat, I went off to do a Ph.D. at Cornell University to look at the impact of French colonialism in Cambodia and southern Vietnam. In the course of the study I did in archives in Paris and Phnom Penh and Saigon, I came across the story of the exploration of the Mekong by the French Mekong expedition in the middle 1860s. And this led me to writing River Road to China, published in 1975. I came to study the Mekong as much as a political analyst and historian in subsequent years. I decided in the 1990s that the river deserved to have its own biography written.

“In the 1990s, I became aware of what was going on in China, really for the first time: that from the 1980s onwards China was building dams on its section of the river. Most people don’t realize that the Mekong, although it’s referred to as Southeast Asia’s largest river, flows through China for 44 percent of its length. The more I read about what the Chinese were doing with dams, the more I became aware that dams were a fundamental issue for the future of the Mekong.

"The Chinese dams—three completed, the fourth one at Xiaowan close to being completed, and others on the drawing board or under  construction—these are going to have a long-term effect on the Mekong. It may not be for five or ten years before that effect becomes significant, but it will have a significant effect—not least because it’s going to alter the flow pattern of the river. There will be fewer really big floods, and there’ll be more water in the river during the dry season.

“Now, at first glance or first hearing, that sounds like a good idea. Floods, many people would think, are a bad thing. In fact they’re not. Provided they’re not horrendous floods, they’re very good things.  They bring nutrients down the stream, they flush out pests from paddy fields, they play a very important role. The flood pulse, as it currently exists, plays a very important part in the spawning of fish in the river. So in the long term, the Chinese dams are going to have some very significant negative effects.

“There’s the added and significant worry that the governments in Vientiane and Phnom Penh are talking about building their own dams on the main stream of the river, where none currently exist below China. The really big concern there is that these will interrupt the migratory fish patterns which play such an important part in feeding the populations of both countries in the lower Mekong Basin. Just to take one example, nearly 80 percent, or some would say over 80 percent, of the animal protein intake of the Cambodian population comes from fish taken out of the Mekong and its associated river systems, including the Cambodian great lake.”