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Mekong: China damned if it doesn't

23 March 2010 07:07

As the drought I previously reported on in The Interpreter tightens its grip on mainland Southeast Asia and in Yunnan and Guangxi provinces in southwestern China, the level of water in the Mekong River continues to fall. It is now below the previous all-time low reached in 1993 after the worst drought on record in 1992.

With this development have come increasingly vocal calls by NGOs for the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to persuade China to release water which, they claim, is being held back in the hydropower dams it has built on the Mekong in Yunnan province. Rather overshadowed by other political developments in Thailand, civil society groups from northern Thailand have been lobbying for action against what they claim is China's selfish behaviour.

The problems of the drought and its effect on the Mekong have also received frequent coverage in the government-controlled Lao press. And in Vietnam the Thanh Nien newspaper, the journal of the Ho Chi Minh City Communist Youth Federation, has given wide coverage to complaints that China's dams are playing a role in the drought. The 15 March issue of Thanh Nien even had a sub-heading in its report entitled 'Damn those dams'. Only in Cambodia, where China is, in Prime Minister Hun Sen's words 'Cambodia's most trusted friend', has coverage been minimal.

NGO calls for China to be held accountable pose a problem for those governments which are members of the MRC — Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Each in their various ways are concerned to maintain good relations with China and so reluctant to accuse it of acting contrary to their interests. Moreover, China has vigorously denied that its dams are to blame for the situation. In the words of the counsellor at the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, speaking on 11 March, claims that China's dams are to blame are 'baseless and incorrect'.

In any event, he noted, water flowing into the Mekong in China, where it is known as the Lancang Jiang, only represents 13.5 per cent of the river's total volume. (This is a frequently quoted Chinese statistic, but it is at best disingenuous, since water from China is particularly important for sustaining downstream flows in the dry season, perhaps to a total of 40 per cent of the river's volume as far south as the Lao capital, Vientiane.)

In something of a concession, the Chinese have issued an invitation to the members of the MRC to send delegates to inspect the hydropower dam at Jinghong in the far south of Yunnan. China previously has been reluctant to issue such invitations.

Faced with the concern to take some action to appease domestic constituencies, and rather than approach China individually through their diplomatic missions, MRC country members have elected as a group to seek clarification through the Chinese mission to the UN on what, if any, role is being played by the Chinese dams in limiting the flow of water down the Mekong.

It has to be asked how productive this approach will be when the Chief Executive Office of the MRC, Jeremy Bird, has over the past several weeks consistently and publicly spoken of the low water levels in the Mekong as being the result of the severe drought. At no stage has be blamed the Chinese dams for the current situation, though he has been reported as saying, 'It's difficult to say categorically that there is no link (between the low water levels and those dams)'.

Bird has also stated that 'modellers' from the MRC will be engaging with their Chinese counterparts to exchange information on the current situation. It will be interesting to see what the results of such an exchange will be, since if it is productive it will elevate contacts between the MRC and the Chinese to a greater degree of cooperation than has previously been the case.

There is no reason to doubt Bird's judgment on why river levels have fallen, but it is unlikely that this will satisfy many of the protesting NGOs. What is more, and as China continues with its dam-building program, the prospect is for an increase in claims that China is damaging the character of the Mekong, both in relation to its flow patterns and its role as a rich source of fish and irrigation.

Seeking to deal with these issues by appealing to China through the vehicle of the MRC seems a less than productive way to deal with future problems, particularly as China resolutely refuses to join the organisation.

All this said, China has now indicated that it will attend a meeting of the MRC in Thailand in early April in its capacity as an observer and will be prepared at that time to discuss the state of the Mekong River on the sidelines of the meeting with Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Contrary to some press reports, this will not be the first time that China has attended MRC meetings as an observer. It is unclear how ready China will be to discuss the state of the river in the meetings itself as opposed to bilateral meetings on the sidelines.

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