China's dams killing Mekong

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EDITORIAL Bangkok Post 25 February 2010

Like most rivers in this country which are fast drying up under the scorching summer sun, the Mekong is no exception. This otherwise mighty river has shrunk substantially in size and its once forceful flow is now down to a trickle in many lower stretches of the river, to the extent that navigation has become impossible.

Although the drying up of the Mekong River in the dry season has become a normal phenomenon, the situation this year appears to be much worse than that in previous years. The impact has already been felt by people depending on the river for water, transport and food. The Irrigation Department of late has reported that the river in Loei, Nong Khai and Nakhon Phanom provinces has already reached critical levels even though the peak of the dry season is still a month away. Tour boat operators in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district have suspended their services because the water level is too shallow for navigation. Fishermen have reported fewer catches prompting many of them to turn to other manual jobs to make a living.

Less rainfall as a result of climatic changes may be partly to blame. But non-governmental organisations which have been closely monitoring ecological changes in the Mekong River have been quick to point accusatory fingers at China. They blame China for storing up water, especially at the newly-completed Xiaowan hydro-electric dam, to generate electricity. That is just part of the sad story. The damming of the Mekong's tributaries in Laos and northeastern Thailand, such as the Pak Moon dam, also contribute to less water flowing into the Mekong.

The Thai NGOs are not the only ones who believe that the damming of the Mekong River by Beijing has resulted in the river drying up, especially in the hot season. Eight hydro-electric dams have been planned for the upper reaches of the river in China's southern province of Yunnan and four of them have already been completed.

The Mekong River Commission, which China has refused to join, has repeatedly voiced serious concern about the adverse impact caused by the dams to the ecological system of the river basin and to the millions of people living downstream, but to no avail.

Beijing built the dams to harness the Mekong for its own benefit, with complete disregard for the potential adversity rendered to the river's ecological system and the livelihoods of the peoples of Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam along the lower reaches of the river. This should not be surprising as the Chinese government did not care much either for the plight of tens of thousands of Chinese who were forced to evacuate to pave the way for the dams' construction.

What is most disturbing about the whole tragic saga of this crucial water lifeline appears to be the quiet submission to Beijing's blatant abuse of the river by governments in the region and their seeming acceptance of the consequences as a fait accompli. Unless the governments of the Mekong riparian countries act collectively as a single entity, there is little chance that Beijing will come to the negotiating table or be willing to part with crucial information about the dam projects and, more importantly, water management.

China has established itself as an economic behemoth. But the way it has treated its small neighbours to the south, especially regarding the use of the Mekong River, leaves much to be desired. To earn the genuine respect and recognition of these countries, China must not only act responsibly but also accountably, befitting its status as an emerging super power.