Mekong Utility Watch

China dam plans raise Mekong fears

Jamil Anderlini in Beijing and Tim Johnston in Bangkok
Financial Times
April 1, 2010

China will ramp up construction of dams, reservoirs and wells in response to a severe drought in the country’s south-west, but the move is likely to raise tensions with downstream countries, which have already blamed reduced river flows on Beijing.

Most of south-west China has been affected by the drought, which began in November and has left more than 24m people without adequate access to drinking water. Downstream in Thailand, cargo boats have been stranded along the banks of the Mekong, which is at its lowest level in half a century, while fishermen complain of empty nets.

Beijing has launched emergency drought relief operations involving 260,000 soldiers and officials yesterday said this force had drilled 18,000 wells, built 4,307 emergency water diversion works and laid 20,000 kilometres of pipeline.

“We must prepare ourselves to fight a long war against this severe drought,” said Liu Ning, secretary-general of China’s State Flood Control and Drought Relief Headquarters. “With so many government departments working in synergy, we will surely triumph in our battle,” he said, while forecasting the drought would last until mid-May.

The south-western province of Yunnan, which has been hit hardest by the drought, has allocated Rmb27bn ($4bn, €2.9bn, £2.6bn) to build reservoirs and dams, officials said.

China’s water management policies have come in for criticism from the countries of the Mekong basin, where 60m people are directly or indirectly dependent on the river.

“We can see the level of the water is getting lower,” Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Thai prime minister, said this month. “We will ask the foreign ministry to talk with a representative from China in terms of co-operation and in terms of management systems in the region.”

The Mekong River Commission, which includes Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, will meet this weekend to discuss the water shortage and future developments along the river.

It is unclear how much of the Mekong’s drop is due to Chinese dam building. China has three operational dams on the river’s headwaters in Yunnan and two more are being built.

Chinese officials dismissed concerns that their waterworks had affected downstream countries.

“At present, we only use a tiny part of the average flow of the Lancang (the Chinese name for the Mekong’s upper reaches), so even if we build more water management projects, it won’t consume much and won’t have any influence on the downstream flow,” Zhou Xuewen, head of the planning department at the Ministry of Water Resources, told the Financial Times.

Read the original story here.

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