VIENTIANE - Low water levels on the upper Mekong River have renewed criticism
over hydropower dams China has erected on the waterway's upper reaches.
Environmental groups and governments have pinned blame on China's
inward-looking water management policies, although some experts say the real
culprit is unusually severe drought conditions in southwestern China, northern
Thailand and Laos.
Chinese authorities have said water levels in the country are at their lowest
in 50 years, and they reject as groundless reports blaming their dams for the
parched state of the river. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an
inter-governmental body that promotes and coordinates sustainable management
and development of the Mekong River basin, said in a February 26
statement that levels in the upper Mekong are lower than in 1993, which came on
the heels of the most serious regional drought on record in 1992.
Although Beijing says it takes into account the needs of downstream countries
and has set up joint monitoring stations along the river, there is still
considerable doubt about its sincerity in maintaining the river's normal flow.
The MRC, for its part, has little direct leverage over Beijing, leaving member
countries to approach China either through the United Nations or their
individual diplomatic missions.
Underscoring the heightened tensions, a March 3 MRC meeting held in Laos' old
royal capital of Luang Prabang agreed to send an official letter to Beijing's
representative at the United Nations to seek its cooperation in finding a
solution to the Mekong's low flow. It marked the first time that the MRC sent
an official letter of complaint to China.
Thailand has been particularly vocal, calling for the four MRC members - that
is, itself, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam - to apply bilateral diplomatic pressure
on Beijing through their respective foreign ministries. During a weekly
television address on March 7, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said
"we'll ask China to help manage the water flow along the river better so
countries in Southeast Asia would not be affected".
The low water levels, including certain stretches which have completely dried
up, have all but stopped shipping on the Mekong. The river is a fast emerging
major cargo route between the southern Chinese city of Jinghong and the
northern Thai town of Chiang Saen, where a new river port is currently under
construction. From there cargo is carried into Thailand and the rest of
The route is expected to be an important trade link in the implementation of
the new China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. The agreement, which came into force in
January, will pave the way for closer economic integration between Southeast
Asia and China, an area with a combined population of 1.9 billion people and a
combined gross domestic product (GDP) of around US$6 trillion.
By mid-February, over 20 Chinese cargo vessels were grounded in the section of
the river that borders Myanmar and Laos. The vessels were later pulled to
higher waters or into ports in Thailand. Four days later, China's Marine
Affairs Bureau in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture had in response to
the low water levels stopped issuing permits for vessels to travel south.
According to Chiang Saen's customs department, an estimated $4.6 million worth
of cargo has been left stranded on the river. To bypass the dried-up Mekong,
shippers have turned to the recently completed Route 3 roadway, which links
Jinghong with northern Thailand through northwestern Laos. As many as 50
trailer trucks per day are now using the road when just a few months ago that
number was around 50 per month.
The low water has also affected the availability of drinking water and
irrigation for dry season crops. The MRC says the situation is particularly
acute in the northern provinces of Laos and Thailand, areas that are already
among the poorest in both countries. In Laos, irrigation systems and pumping
stations for drinking water have been affected in Vientiane, Borikhamxay and
Khammuan provinces. In Luang Prabang, there are reports of drinking water
shortages, with only the tourist area in the city center receiving 24-hour
According to the MRC, water levels are expected to diminish further over the
next month before rising again in late April or early May. Agrarians,
environmental groups and affected citizens in Thailand have been quick to point
the finger at China for the lack of water. The Save the Mekong Coalition and
other environmental groups have said that China's dams on the upper Mekong are
to blame for the unusually low water levels.
Four major dams have been built on the Mekong's upper reaches in China and
another four are planned. Those completed include the Xiaowan dam, which began
storing water in its reservoir in October. It is the second-largest
hydroelectric dam in China after the Three Gorges Dam. Of the four planned
dams, the Nuozhadu is expected to be completed in 2014 and will hold back even
more water in order to generate 5,000 megawatts (MW) of power, the most of any
of the eight dams.
It's not the first time that China's dams have generated downstream tensions.
Environmentalists say that there have been unusual water flows on the Mekong
ever since the first of the eight dams planned by China became operational in
1993. They often claim that Chinese dam construction has disrupted river
traffic, has impacted adversely on fisheries and endangering some species,
including the Mekong dolphin and the manatee, and has caused river blockages
that hinder fish from swimming upriver to spawn.
Floods in 2008, which caused severe damage in Laos Thailand, were also blamed
in part on China's dams - an accusation China likewise rejected. Some experts
say that fluctuations in water levels are to be expected during dam
construction and may cause lower water levels during the current dry season. In
the longer-term, however, they say China's dams could actually be of benefit
during drought conditions because of their capacity to release water
downstream. China's dams will eventually be able to increase dry season water
flow by as much as 30%-40%, if Beijing so chooses.
Hydroelectric dams along the river are designed to store water in the wet
season and release it during the dry season to generate electricity. An MRC
report on March 5 indicated that China's dam operations in early and
mid-January may have actually delayed the onset of low water conditions
downstream experienced since the later part of that month.
Beijing insists that the situation is a result of a severe drought conditions
in southwest China and not its dam operations. Southwestern Yunnan has been the
hardest hit province, but Guangxi, Guizhou, Sichuan and Chongqing have also
been affected. The drought was brought on by a lack of rainfall and high
temperatures, and is not expected to end until the rainy season begins in May.
Chinese authorities say that 7.5 million people and more than 4 million
livestock are now suffering from inadequate water supplies in Yunnan and
Guizhou provinces. Yunnan's governor, Qin Guangrong, told a drought relief
meeting on February 23 that those numbers could climb to 7.92 million people in
March, 9.51 million and April and 10.14 million by May. In February, Yunnan
provincial authorities reported that 187 forest fires caused by the drought had
been extinguished since November.
China's Ministry of Agriculture announced on Sunday that the drought had
affected 4.09 million hectares of farmland by March 5. About 2.20 million of
those hectares have been seriously affected. Although the area is not a major
grain-growing region, it is China's second-largest producer of rubber and
sugarcane. Government figures say the drought could reduce sugar production by
12% this year, leaving an amount insufficient to meet China's domestic demand.
Preliminary government estimates indicate that the drought has caused $1.4
billion in losses.
The MRC and Thailand's National Disaster Warning Center have backed Beijing's
meteorological explanation for the Mekong's low flows. They both have said that
it is too early to conclusively link low water levels to China's dam
construction and operations. In a recent statement, the MRC said the situation
is the "result of drought conditions in northern Thailand and Lao PDR [People's
Democratic Republic] and are part of a wider regional drought being experienced
upstream in Yunnan province in China."
A MRC spokesman based at its secretariat in Vientiane told Asia Times Online
that MRC figures indicate that monthly precipitation has been significantly
below average since September 2009. Mekong tributaries, such as the Nam Ou and
Nam Khan in Laos, are also experiencing low water levels; the lowest in 20
years for the Nam Ou and the lowest in 50 years for the Nam Khan, according to
the MRC spokesman. Water levels in Vientiane during the rainy season were the
fifth-lowest on record in the past 98 years
In Thailand, all 17 districts of northeastern Nong Khai province have been
declared drought-hit areas. Water levels in major Thai dams are well below 50%,
and the Royal Irrigation Department has warned that reserves in certain areas
are at critical levels. Many farmers are worried that they may not have enough
water for their dry season crops.
While northern Thailand and Laos are clearly suffering from drought conditions,
some observers note that Beijing's frequent claims that only 14% of the
Mekong's flow originates in China are somewhat misleading. That figure, they
say, is a percentage of the total flow that, after snaking through Thailand,
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, eventually empties into the South China Sea. The
percentage of Mekong water that must pass through China before reaching
northern Thailand and Laos is nearly 100%, they say.
China's unwillingness to release detailed information about its dams, which it
considers a national security issue and thus not open to public disclosure, has
long bred suspicion among downstream countries. China has thus not formally
joined the MRC, but along with Myanmar has been a dialogue partner to the
grouping since 1996.
In the absence of greater transparency from China, observers are left to wonder
how much water is currently held behind China's Mekong dams after the long
drought and low rainfall suffered across the region in 2009. Additionally, they
contend that it is unlikely China would be willing to release additional water
beyond what is necessary for electricity generation while the current drought
In response to the criticism, China extended invitations this week for Mekong
country representatives to visit its Jinghong dam later this month. Some viewed
this as an encouraging step towards more transparency and multilateral
cooperation, but detractors say that without a truly inclusive and empowered
MRC, downstream countries will remain in the dark and vulnerable to China's
secretive water management.
Brian McCartan is a Bangkok-based freelance journalist. He may be reached