Mekong Utility Watch

China on the Mekong: Stonewalling will burst the dam of diplomacy

Suthichai Yoon
The Nation
May 28, 2009

THESAURUS definition of “stonewalling”: “Stalling or delaying, especially by refusing to answer questions or cooperate; a tactic used to mislead or delay.”

Did I detect a crack in the Great Wall of China? Has Beijing finally put an end to her stonewalling dip into the Mekong River controversy – vis-a-vis the five other countries downstream?

I might be wrong, but I desperately hope the faint sign of China’s readiness to sit down and discuss the sensitive issue of dam construction and its impact on the Mekong ecosystem is for real.

China, after all, can’t afford to cultivate an image of a country too busy and self-centred – on its way to becoming a superpower – to listen to the grievances of the smaller and poorer countries that share a rich river whose survival is being threatened.

My hint of a small, but significant, shift in China’s position on the Mekong controversy was based on a recent disclosure by Siripong Hangsapruek, director-general of the Water Resources Department of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.

He said that during a recent meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the Chinese representative demonstrated an unusual readiness to address the issue of the impact of dams on the river for the first time.

An official from China’s Ministry of Water Resources presented statistics to refute accusations that China’s dams north of Thailand and Laos were responsible for the unprecedented flash floods that hit several districts in Thailand’s Chiang Rai and neighbouring Lao precincts from August 11-13 last year.

The Chinese official told his other Mekong basin counterparts that the total volume of water at the Jing Hong Dam on the Lancang River (the Chinese name for the Mekong) during that period was measured at 4,500 to 5,000 million cubic metres. It was, he pointed out, still below the previous highest level of 6,000 cubic meters.

According to the Chinese, the serious flooding that hit Thailand’s northern districts last August was apparently caused by the enormous amount of rainwater brought about by Typhoon Kamuri, which pushed up the Mekong’s water level on the Thai and Lao banks.

Director-General Siripong indicated that the other participants at the meeting were pleasantly surprised – not precisely because the Chinese side had denied being the guilty party, but because it was the first time that “Big Brother up North” was prepared to answer questions related to the controversy.

When I sat down last week with villagers from the three districts seriously affected by the August floods – Chiang Saen, Chiang Kong and Wiang Kaen in Chiang Rai province – there was little hesitation from them in pointing accusing fingers at China.

A village headman told me: “This kind of flooding was shocking to us. We had never seen such a sudden rise and fall of the Mekong. In three days, it went up by 15 metres. In the next three days, the level receded to the old level. I have spent my whole life on the Mekong and let me tell you that this has never happened before. Old people here say the Mekong was rebelling. It refused to be tamed by dams,” he said.

I asked him and several other old-timers from the riverbanks of the three districts, the same question: “What’s the cause of this new threat?”

Back came the same, unequivocal answer: “China’s dams.”

Right or wrong, the locals have become increasingly cynical of the powerful neighbour to the north, which has appeared bent on reaping economic benefits without much concern for the ecosystem.

Local people will tell you how an increasing number of Chinese-owned business complexes and retail shops have cropped up on the other side of the river in Laos. “I don’t know whether they are related to the new dams on the Mekong or not, but the Chinese have come to town in a big way,” said another Thai villager whose relatives live on the Lao side of the river.

If you talk long enough with the local people here, they will also tell you about their other fears: The Chinese are trying to blow up islets in the Mekong to allow freighters of up to 500 tonnes to transport goods to and from China.

I took a boat ride from beautiful Khon Phi Long, one of the scenic islets originally targeted for destruction, down to Pha Dai, to observe how the local people’s lives have undergone drastic changes for the worse.

I met Huak, 50, who has lived his entire life on the riverbank. “I used to make Bt500 a day from selling fish I caught in the river. On a lucky day, I could make several thousand baht'”, he told me. “Now, I can go three days without catching a single fish.”

I heard the same stories retold over and over again during my brief visit.

That’s why I thought the crack I detected in the stonewalling diplomacy of China over the Mekong controversy should be a welcome sign for all concerned.

China, in her peaceful rise to a position of power and prestige in the international arena, can’t afford to be tainted by accusations of arrogance and negligence, especially towards desperate people who believe that their livelihoods are being threatened by “Da Ge” or “Big Brother”.

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