Mekong Utility Watch

Manipulating the Mekong

Washington Post
December 30, 2004


China’s push to harness storied river’s power puts it at odds with nations downstream.

A decade ago, Chan Kimoeun could pilot his skiff across the turbid water of the Tonle Sap, stay out for two days and bring home as much as 400 pounds of fish. On this day, he returned from five nights of floating torpor with a mere 50 pounds – hardly enough to cover the costs of fuel or the rice he cooked during the trip.

“All that time for nothing,” said Chan, whose four children depend on his catch to pay for school and any prospect of escaping this floating town on the trash-strewn shores of Cambodia’s largest lake. “There are fewer and fewer fish.”

While Chan futilely drifted, construction crews 650 miles to the north in the Chinese province of Yunnan laboured to secure energy for China’s breakneck industrialization. Dumping truckloads of boulders and concrete, they fashioned a 300-foot-high hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River.

China’s rapid development is changing the global economy as the country absorbs vast quantities of energy and raw materials and presses wages and manufacturing costs lower. But the changes along the Mekong highlight another aspect of China’s ascendance: Its threat to the environment.

Japan blames China’s smokestacks for increased volumes of acid rain. Chinese timber companies have pressed into neighbouring Burma to harvest hardwoods. And throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complain that China’s thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong, a waterway that sustains some 70 million people.

Known to Americans largely for the struggle over its fertile southern delta during the Vietnam War, the Mekong winds 3,000 miles from the highlands of Tibet to the South China Sea, irrigating crops, nurturing fish and supporting shipping across a vast area.

China already has completed two dams across the river, with two more under construction and four others planned. Despite the geographic distance, scientists are beginning to document links with growing environmental troubles downstream. A team of researchers last year at the Finnish Environment Institute concluded that China’s Manwan Dam cut
by one-half the amount of sediment in the water at Chiang Saen, Thailand. The researchers also concluded that China’s network of dams would likely lead to lower water levels in the river, less flooding of the Tonle Sap, less transfer of nutrient-rich sediment – and a degraded fishery.

The stakes are considerable. The Mekong is a crucial artery of nutrients for the Tonle Sap, for example, whose fish provide most of the protein in the Cambodian diet. The fish catch following the end of the wet season in 2003 declined by roughly half compared with the
previous year, according to a report by Milton Osborne, an Australian researcher. While overfishing and habitat destruction are also factors, researchers place some of the blame on China’s dams.

“China, they will work for their own country,” said Khy Tanglim, a Cambodian cabinet minister who heads a team devoted to Mekong policy. “We are downstream, so we suffer all the negative consequences. If there is no more water for us, no more fish, no more vegetation, this is a big disaster.”

The catch in northern Thai waters declined by half from 2000 to 2004, according to the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, an environmental group. Concern is also mounting about Vietnam’s Mekong River Delta, whose soils produce roughly half of the country’s agricultural output. Less fresh water coming down river could allow more saltwater to spill in from the South China Sea, ruining farmland. More than 40 percent of the Mekong
passes through Chinese territory, and about 16 percent of the runoff that feeds it originates in China – a figure that jumps to perhaps 40 percent in the dry season, Osborne said.

So far, China has not joined the four-nation Mekong River Commission, which coordinates development.

“The Chinese government is not concerned about the impact on the lives of
people downstream,” said Chainarong Settachua, director of the Southeast
Asia Rivers Network.

Beijing asserts rights to do what it wants on its portion of the Mekong, while arguing that its dams could lessen flooding downriver. China also cites the absence of data definitively linking its dams to trouble downstream. A spokesman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China considers the environmental impacts of its hydroelectric dams.

The United Nations’ 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses requires nations sharing a waterway to
coordinate development and lessen the effect on downstream communities.
But China’s neighbours so far have muted their criticism, preferring to promote trade. Laos has its own dam-building plans. Thailand hopes to buy electricity produced by China. Cambodia’s government sees China as a key source of aid.

“What can we do?” said Khy, the Cambodian minister. “They are upstream. They are a richer country operating in their own sovereign territory. How can we stop them?”

On a journey down portions of the Mekong in early November, China’s industrial ambitions contrasted with the struggles of its neighbours. North of the Chinese town of Jinghong in Yunnan province, some 5,000 people are scouting new places to live, having been told by the government that their land would soon be under water.

Ai Bin and his family, members of the Bulang ethnic minority, prepared to dismantle their house and move it to higher ground. Rice and rubber farmers, they built their house four years ago for what constituted their life savings – about $3,000. Brick by brick, board by board, they must now take it apart, carry it up the mountain and put it back together.

“It’s so much trouble,” Ai said. Just downstream, around a series of jungle-covered hills, the cause of his dislocation gleamed under a tropical sun. In eight years, the dam at
Jinghong is expected to produce 1,500 megawatts of power, boosting by more than 50 percent the energy delivered by two other dams already in place upriver ‚Äì the Manwan dam, completed in 1996, and the Dachaoshan, launched a year ago. Further upriver at Xiaowan, work has begun on a dam that will tower 900 feet over the Mekong. Slated for completion by 2012, it would stand second only to China’s controversial Three Gorges
Dam on the Yangtze River.

With China now rationing energy in key industrial areas, the Yunnan’s rivers have become central to boosting the supply of electricity. A frontier mission is also at play. Dam building in China is championed as part of the construction of a modern nation, much as the taming of the Colorado and Columbia rivers in the United States gave form to American ambitions.

“This dam is making people rich,” said Jiang Yen, 35, as he rode a boat past the Jinghong construction site. “It’s giving people jobs. We’ll all get cheap electricity.”

From Jinghong, the Mekong winds past thick stands of bamboo and soaring hardwoods necklaced by vines. At the port town of Mengla, close to where China, Laos and Burma converge, Chinese cargo vessels load fresh apples, dried fruit and green tea bound for Southeast Asia. Trade has been widened by the blasting of rapids upriver, a project coordinated by multiple governments but paid for almost exclusively by China. Local
shippers decry an influx of Chinese competitors, but more significantly complain of volatile fluctuations in the river’s depth as China shuts and opens gates on its dams.

At the end of the rainy season in late October, the river at Chiang Saen is typically 7 1/2 feet deep, enough to allow the local boats to load as much as 250 tons of cargo. This year, it fell below six feet.

At one local shipping firm, ChairatanaMunkong Co., marketing manager Kitchai Taetemwong complained that because of the shallower depth his boat could carry only 150 tons on a recent run to Jinghong from Chiang Saen. That sliced a usual $2,500 profit to a mere $500. Shifts in the water level and changes in water temperature have wreaked
havoc on fish farms near Chiang Khong, Thailand. Production fell nearly one-third over the past two years, said Kasem Jongpaisansin, president of an association of fish farmers. Farmers say so little water is available during the dry season that planting crops is futile in some places.

“The soil is too dry,” complained Pun Yauthani, 55, who plants peanuts on a sandy island between Thailand and Laos. “This year, I’m thinking I won’t plant. It’s a waste of time.”

South of Chiang Khong, erosion ravages terraced plots carved into the sloping banks. With the rocks blasted upriver, water runs swiftly, tearing away chunks of soil. Leafy trees sit shorn of support, their roots snaking into thin air. A gas station has become a pile of broken
concrete, its foundation stripped away.

Every morning, Kaen Boonnak, who grows broccoli on a roughly one-acre plot, looks to see how much land the river stole overnight. “I’ve already lost the bottom third,” he said, estimating that his $1,500 annual income has dropped by one-fifth. “I’m afraid that we’re going to lose more.”

The worst fears lie downriver in Cambodia, where the Tonle Sap’s prodigious fishery depends on a yearly flow of nutrient-rich floodwaters down the Mekong. The worry is that the dams are disrupting the annual cycle, narrowing the area in which fish can breed.

Many of the people who live along the lake are landless and unable to grow rice, making them particularly vulnerable. They catch fish with handheld nets, eating some and selling some to buy rice and other goods. The shore is a riot of boats and sputtering engines and
palm-frond squatters’ huts, the air laced with the smell of rotting innards and diesel fuel.

Men just in from the lake unload sardine-sized fish from a 50-foot vessel, using straw baskets balanced from poles slung over their shoulders. They drop their loads into the back of a dump truck that will carry the oozing pile to a drying factory. A barefoot girl scans
the muddy ground for fish that have landed there, placing her finds into a plastic bag.

These are days of scarcity and alarm. Most people have not heard of the dams in China, and shrug when asked why fish are elusive. But they understand the implications of shortage. Chan Kimoeun and his family live on a floating house that shifts with the changing contours of the shore. He used to earn about $6.50 per day fishing. Now he often fails
to break even, tapping loan sharks for the next load of fuel. He estimates his debt at about $1,000 – more than his annual income – with 10 percent monthly interest mounting.

Neither Chan nor his wife can read, but their 12-year-old daughter can, a subject that brings a glow to their faces. With school costing them about $50 per year, her future is in jeopardy. “We’re worried,” Chan said. “We struggle on the Tonle Sap to catch fish. There is no other way.”

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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