Dried Mekong River and countries’ responsibility

VietNamNet 19 November 2010

VietNamNet Bridge – China has been invited to join the Mekong River Commission (MRC) several times but it still has not become a MRC member. However, the world and the region’s attention on the Mekong River creates pressure on China to cooperate with countries in the River downstream.

Chinese reservoirs store up water, the Mekong Delta suffers?

The water level in the Mekong River, the longest river in Southeast Asia, has dropped to the lowest level in the last five decades, causing worries among the affected countries.

The Mekong River is listed among the world’s ten rivers facing the greatest threats of exhaustion. This time of year should be the flood season in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta but the region is dry.

VietNamNet interviewed Dr. Pham Hong Giang, Chair of the Vietnam Association for Big Dams and Water Resource Development, Vice Chair of the International Commission on Big Dams.

Some scientists said that China’s dams in the Mekong River have been part of the reason for the low flood in the Mekong Delta. What is your viewpoint on this?

Recently the public tends to associate hydro power with natural? disasters but hydro power is one kind of clean energy sources. In some countries, hydro power accounts for nearly 100 percent of the total power output in use. No country in the world neglects hydro power resources.

However, hydro power has some disadvantages and we must manage them. Using hydro power is like using fire. We can’t stop using fire just because we are afraid of causing fires.

If hydro-power reservoirs are well operated, they can help control floods and reduce droughts in the upstream. Droughts and floods become more serious not because of hydro-power plants but because those who operate the power plants don’t balance the power production against other interests.

For example, before the flood season, if power plants reduce the water level in their reservoirs and store up water when floods come, they will help reduce floods. However, if plants only focus on power production so they store up water before the flood season, this will cause water shortage in the downstream. Moreover, because the reservoirs are full of water, when floods come, they will have to discharge water, increasing flood tides in the downstream.

The 2146km Langcang river (the section of Mekong River passing through China) which runs from the Tibetan Plateau at the height of over 5000m above the sea level to Yunnan at -400m above the sea level, has great potential for hydro power production. It accounts for over 80 percent of the hydro-power resources of the entire Mekong River.

China plans to build 14 dams in the Langcang river. Four of them are completed, four others are being built. The remaining dams are being designed or in preparation for construction.

However, not only China but other countries too, want to develop hydro power in the Mekong River, both in the major flow and the branches.

This year, there are no floods in the Mekong Delta. The causesneed to be researched carefully. Chinese dams affect the Mekong Delta but the impact is not large because the dams are located far from the Delta. Moreover, only 18 percent of the Mekong River’s flow belongs to China and the total water output accounts for 13 percent.

The dry season in the region was more severe this year and droughts have affected the Mekong River. Certainly, droughts in the Mekong River were partly caused by Chinese reservoirs, especially the two newly-built reservoirs, which stored up water in the dry season.

The dams built by Thailand, Laos and Cambodia will also have direct impact on the Mekong Delta.

Has the Mekong River Commission researched and assessed the real impact of reservoirs on the downstream regions like Vietnam?

The commission has conducted many research works on the Mekong River. It can supply sufficient documents for evaluating any project related to the river. However, the commission’s opinions are for reference only.

There is no specific law on international rivers. It’s time for the international community to build a code on international rivers.

In 1995, four members of the Mekong Commission River (Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia) signed the Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin. This is the only legal foundation on water resources and related natural resources in the Mekong River basin to protect the interests of the countries in the downstream.

Recently, for the first time a government – Laos – consulted the MRC’s opinion on the construction its Xayaburi dam in the Mekong River.

Xayaburi is one of the 12 dams that are scheduled for building in the Mekong River downstream. The World Wide Fund for Nature said that Laos should delay the construction of this dam for at least ten years to have accurate evaluations of the dam’s impact on the Mekong River.

The organization said that if only one of the 12 dams is built, the ecological system in the Mekong River downstream will be damanged.

Though they criticize China for building dams in the Mekong River, Thailand and Laos also want to build their dams in the major flow.

Thailand is very interested in developing hydro power in Laos, to avoid floods and to buy their electric power. Thailand holds shares in most of hydro-power plants in Laos.

Vietnam doesn’t benefit from the construction of hydro power in the major flow of the Mekong River.

Vietnam should participate in the construction of some hydro-power plants in Laos to buy power from Laos and to have a certain say in controlling these plants.

Vietnam isn’t much affected by China’s dams, what then does Vietnam worry about?

The building of the dams will affect the environment, the flow and seafood output.

The transferring of water from the Mekong River to other rivers is also a threat. China has moved water from the central to the northern region to meet the development demands in the northern region.

The water in the Yangtze Kiang is now abundant, which is enough for the current need but in the future, it will be insufficient. In Yunnan, the Yangtze Kiang and the Langcang (the name of the Mekong River in China) are only 60-70km apart. It is easy to build a channel to connect the two.

Thailand needs water from the Mekong River to irrigate the northeastern region and to move water from the Mekong river to Chao Phraya River to serve Bangkok. However, the transfer of water will happen in the dry season and it will be a big threat for the Mekong River downstream, particularly Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.

On September 23, the US Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee organized a hearing about the plan to build dams in the Mekong River downstream after Laos showed its plan to build Xayaburi dam. The Mekong – Japan Summit and the ministerial meeting between the US and the Mekong subregion countries were recently held in Hanoi. What do you think about the attention big countries pay to the Mekong River?

Developments in the Mekong River downstream have attracted the attention of experts and the world public opinion.

The Mekong Delta is a big granary in Southeast Asia, which contributes to food security in the world. Thailand is also a big rice producer. The world is facing food insecurity so the Mekong River has become a big concern.

The MRC has only four members but it has been supported by many countries, including the US, Japan and European countries.

What should we expect from the participation of big countries in Mekong cooperation?

Issues related to the Mekong River need a mechanism for high-ranking discussion. The MRC is at the ministerial level and it can discuss water-related issues. But there are many other? issues that are associated with the Mekong River.

The involvement of big countries outside the region will help promote dialogue and cooperation among MRC countries and between the MRC and China.

China hasn’t joined the MRC even though it has been invited many times perhaps because it doesn’t want to be restricted by requests from countries in the downstream.

The world and the region’s attention to the Mekong River will help expend dialogue and cooperation in the Mekong basin.

Last year, 15 years after its establishment, MRC organized its first summit, which was participated by the Prime Ministers of member countries and high-ranking delegations from China and Myanmar.

Phuong Loan