Mekong Utility Watch

Chinese dams blamed for Mekong’s dwindling flows and fish stocks

Jonathan Manthorpe
Vancouver Sun
March 14, 2010

Something is wrong with the mighty Mekong River, which frames the lives of 250 million people in six countries of Southeast Asia through which it flows and on which 60 million people depend directly for their livelihoods.

But there are widely differing views on why the Mekong has shrunk to its lowest levels in 20 years, with only half its normal volume in some places, so that vital fish migrations have been disturbed and river shipping had to be halted.

Some blame global warming and shrinking glaciers in Tibet where the Mekong starts its 4,900-kilometre journey through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before spreading out through Vietnam’s “Nine Dragons” delta and easing into the South China Sea.

Others blame the El Niño effect on Southeast Asia’s monsoons and especially the lack of rain in Laos, which in normal times supplies 35 per cent of the water in the main reaches of the Mekong. But a favourite culprit among the peoples of the five countries of the lower Mekong is China and its massive program of hydroelectric dam building on the river as it flows through Yunnan province.

In one demonstration of popular outrage against the supposed sins of China, residents of the northern Thai town of Chiang Rai are planning to demonstrate outside the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok next month.

Sensing the public mood, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva brought up the issue at a meeting with China’s assistant foreign minister Hu Zhengyue last week. The statements after the meeting were all sweetness and light.

Hu said China “would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong.” And Abhisit said he is sure China doesn’t want to see people in the lower Mekong basin having difficulties.

But such a public airing of supposed grievances is unusual in Southeast Asia and a measure of public alarm.

In many ways, China has only itself to blame.

Beijing has been dismissive about requests for information about its dam-building plans, usually implying such inquiries are indefensible intrusions into China’s domestic affairs.

China is not a member of the Mekong River Commission, a joint management and information-gathering body founded by Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in 1995, and avoids any liaison with this body as much as possible.

In the last 30 years China has built three hydroelectric dams — all in operation. Two more large dams are under construction and due for completion in 2012 and 2017.

There are plans for at least two more dams, which could mean that by 2030 the Mekong will negotiate seven dams before it ever leaves China.

China has also financed the blasting of some of the many rapids that clog the Mekong’s bed and have made it a difficult river for navigation for most of its long life. As a result of this engineering work it is now possible to travel from Chiang Saen in northern Thailand to China’s Yunnan province in ships of up to 500 tonnes laden.

Indeed, China envisages this being a significant route for importing oil from the Middle East.

China is also dealing with the governments of Laos and Cambodia — two of the more secretive and intransigent regimes in a region noted for governmental secrecy and intransigence — over the building of two more dams. One would be in southern Laos at Don Sahong in the Khone Falls area, which until relatively recently was the major impediment to using the Mekong for river trade and traffic. The other dam slated to be built with the backing of Chinese state-owned companies is at Sambor in northeastern Cambodia.

There is no doubt that these dams would complete the destruction of the patterns of fish migration that are essential for providing protein harvests for an extraordinary number of people living in the Mekong watershed. Already fishermen in the region are reporting dwindling catches, much smaller fish than in the past, and the disappearance of some species entirely.

Fish caught in the Mekong or its subsidiary waterways provide about $2 billion a year in income for local people. Cambodia’s 15 million people get about 80 per cent of the protein in their diet from fish caught in that magical offshoot of the Mekong, the Tonle Sap lake in the centre of the country.

The Tonle Sap is a wonder of natural hydrology. When it is working properly, the lake fills up with water during the monsoons and spreads over a vast flood plain in Cambodia where it becomes a massive breeding ground for fish. Then, in the dry season, the lake gradually releases its water back into the Mekong, allowing three rice crops a year in the delta in Vietnam.

How all these dams might affect Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, which provides 50 per cent of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product, is also a matter of fearful anticipation.

There is something close to a consensus among scientists and technologists involved with the Mekong that China’s three existing dams are probably not the main cause of the river’s ills.

After all, while 44 per cent of the Mekong’s length is in China, it draws only 16 per cent of its water there.

Drought and changing climate patterns are probably the major cause of the problems, not China. But that will change if and when China continues to monopolize development of the Mekong for hydroelectric and navigation purposes without cooperation with or consideration for its neighbours.

As the Bangkok Post newspaper said in the opening sentence of an editorial last week: “China is fast failing the good-neighbour test in the current Mekong River crisis.”

Categories: Mekong Utility Watch

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