Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:17 | SYDNEY
Saturday 09 Oct 2021 | 19:17 | SYDNEY

China stays quiet on Mekong

30 March 2010 09:48

With China set to attend (as an observer) a Mekong River Commission meeting in Thailand in the first week of April to discuss the drought affecting the Mekong's water levels, New Mandala is carrying an analysis by Alan Potkin, of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University, suggesting that the impoundment of China's Xiaowan dam in the upper reaches of the Mekong could be contributing to the low levels of water flowing down the Mekong.

Xiaowan is a very large dam with a dam wall rising nearly 300 metres and a planned reservoir stretching 170 kilometres upstream. When fully in commission it will be the second biggest dam in China.

We will probably never be able to make a satisfactory judgment on whether or not what is happening at Xiaowan is playing a part in the current low flow pattern of water down the Mekong. The reason is simple, as Potkin's own analysis indicates: we do not have the hydrological data that would allow us to make a judgment. We do not have data for the period before the dam was constructed, for the time when it has been under construction, and for the current period of pervasive drought.

And given the official Chinese statement that allegations that its dams are contributing to the current low levels of water flow are 'baseless', it seems very unlikely that we will have access to the data that, ideally, might help us decide on what role Xiaowan might be playing, one way or another. 

Potkin is certainly right in stating that the concession China has made, to provide water flow data from its dam at Jinghong, further down-stream from Xiaowan, is unlikely to reveal information that has much bearing on the Mekong's flow pattern. This is because Jinghong is not a storage dam: its water level varies according to the season. But unless there is new information available that I have not seen, Potkin is not correct in stating that the Chinese have indicated they will provide information on water flow data for the dam at Manwan.

With China having denied in such a forceful fashion that its dams are playing any role in the current circumstances, is there any likelihood that the MRC member governments will press for information about developments at Xiaowan? It is unlikely, but not impossible. What does seem most unlikely is that China would be ready to accede to such a request.

One further point about Potkin's piece: Potkin states that Chinese sources, not further identified, have indicated that it is 'expected to take ten years' to fill Xioawan to its maximum level. I have no way of judging the accuracy of this statement other than to note that in discussions I had with senior MRC Secretariat officials in Vientiane in May last year I was told that filling Xioawan would be completed in the much shorter time of another two years.

Photo by Flickr user fabiogis50, used under a Creative Commons license.