BANGKOK - Lost in the deluge of accusations that China's dams are the culprit
in the Mekong River's unusually low levels is the fact that Beijing has
actually become much less tightlipped about thorny issues with its neighbors
than in the past.
Some years ago, China would have been unlikely to discuss such matters at a
multilateral, official forum where it would be found to be at fault.
There was a time in the mid-1990s when just about the only response Southeast
Asian nations could get from China about the high-profile dispute at that time
- the spat over the Spratly islands
in the South China Sea - was a statement saying it wanted only bilateral fora
to discuss it.
Those days are far different from China's current diplomatic offensive in
Southeast Asia, as downstream Mekong communities angrily blame it for pushing
the river to record low levels and exacerbating the worst drought they have
seen in decades.
The sight of dry, cracked earth and sandy stretches of riverbed is now common
in northeast Thailand and Laos down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. China's
southwest Yunnan province, where its Mekong dams are located, is itself hurting
from the drought.
"It is as if the river has gone mad," said Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong
Conservation Group in northern Thailand.
The resentment against China for the Mekong's low levels rivals the anger that
peaked in 2008, when downstream countries blamed it for record-high floods.
Indeed, the Mekong's erratic behavior is an emotional issue for the 65 million
people who depend on it for survival. It is also a major public relations
headache for China, which has a "good neighbor" policy toward the countries it
shares the Mekong with.
Seeing that the issue will not go away, China sent Vice Foreign Minister Song
Tao to attend the two-day Mekong summit that took place in Hua Hin, Thailand,
on April 5 and 6, where the drought and China's dams took the limelight.
China is not even a full member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which
groups the downstream countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. As an
upstream country like Myanmar, China is an observer.
Song told the prime ministers of the Mekong countries that China's three dams
in the upper reaches of the river, which it calls Lancang, and a fourth that is
in the reservoir-filling stage, were not bringing water to a trickle
He repeated Chinese officials' statements that China is responsible for just
13.5% of the Mekong's volume downstream and cannot possibly cause the impact
being attributed to its dam projects. It is the drought that is drying up the
Mekong, he said.
"Quite the contrary, by way of the regulating effect of the water dams,
hydropower development of the Lancang River can improve navigation conditions
and help with flood prevention, drought relief and farmland irrigation of the
lower reaches," Song said.
His words echo what Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue said when he
visited Thailand in March: "China would not do anything to damage mutual
interest with neighboring countries in the Mekong."
Yao Wen, first secretary at the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, told a Mekong forum
just before the Hua Hin summit that a few weeks ago, China released 5 million
cubic meters of water from its dams to help ease the drought's effects.
MRC chief executive officer Jeremy Bird told the same forum: "We can't say that
the severe drought from this year is from dams in China." MRC data show that
there is decreased rainfall in the lower Mekong region - the last rainy season
ended earlier than usual - as well as the lowest tributary flows in 50 years,"
In March too, China said it would share "until the end of the drought" data on
water movement from the Manwan and Jinghong dams in Yunnan. Until the
downstream protests peaked, China only shared data about water releases in the
While Bird called this "very positive" news, critics say that what China should
share is hydrological information from before Manwan, the first Lancang dam,
was completed in 1995 in order to study changes in water levels.
They add that more than data about Manwan and Jinghong, what is key is how
China is filling the Xiaowan dam, the most upstream of the Lancang dams and
where most of the water would presumably be stored.
Set to be the world's highest dam at 300 meters when it starts operation in
2012, critics suspect it plays a role in the Mekong's low levels. Chinese
officials have said they are filling the reservoir only during the wet season.
"But it isn't rocket science to realize that those latter two stations [Manwan
and Jinghong] alone provide essentially zero information as to how much water
is presently being retained much further upstream to fill the new Xiaowan
reservoir," Alan Potkin of the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at Northern
Illinois University said in a published commentary.
China's difficulty in getting heard reflects a problem of trust, but it wants
to avoid major damage to its ties with Southeast Asian nations. After all,
these countries, which used to see China as a threat, now view it as a friendly
"Perhaps this is the price of being a superpower, to have all your actions
analyzed and criticized," remarked a Chinese journalist.
Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network concedes that
the Chinese seem more willing to engage these days, but says much remains to be
seen. Chinese activists, he said, say that China works in different ways and
that "it moves very slowly, but when it moves, it moves".
This matters little to those who are nervously watching the Mekong River they
thought they knew.
"We cannot rely on governments, national and international organizations,
high-level authorities, and all big bureaucrats to solve this Mekong crisis any
more," Niwat argued. "It is enough!"