Chinese dams cloud relations with the Mekong

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A parched river bank area of ​​the Mekong in Pak Chom district in northeastern Loei Province. China was urged last June to share year-round data on water levels. AFP

The new Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Han Zhiqiang, compares the relationship between the two countries and their joint efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic as “one family”.

Insisting not to exaggerate, the ambassador said his feelings match what was happening on the ground. He said Thais and Chinese are on good terms, quoting a sentence that reinforces the affinity between the two countries: “The Chinese and Thais are not strangers; both come from the brotherhood.”

Even so, bilateral ties and 46 years of diplomatic relations are not only being tested by aid during the Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic relations. In the coming years, water resource management in the Mekong will be evidence of the relationship between the two nations.

China has built a series of dams on the Lancang Jiang, the upper reaches of the Mekong on Chinese territory. The mighty transnational river, which once ran free, jumped from the original Tibetan plateau and then drained in the southern part of Vietnam, has now been broken up into segments by a cascade of dams, 11 of them in China and others some of them already built in Laos .

The “older sibling” hacking the Mekong has raised questions from critics in downstream countries and the international community. Villagers along the Mekong River like those in Chiang Rai Province lamented the Mekong River’s sudden change – something that is affecting their fisheries and agriculture, not to mention floods that are devastating the community.

Such drastic and unpredictable changes in water flow and volume have been observed since 1993 when the first of the series of dams, the Manwan Dam, began operating. The total volume of water stored in these dams is no less than 41,700 million cubic meters, which means that a gigantic amount of water has been withdrawn from the ecology of the river.

The serious change has been observed since 2007 in at least two ways: the year-round fluctuation in the water level in the Mekong and the unnatural ups and downs of the water currents in the Mekong, which permanently devastate its natural cycle.

The water level fluctuations in the Mekong occur clearly during the winter and dry seasons. For example, from December 13-17, 2013, when the Jinghong Dam – another Chinese dam – abruptly released water. In the Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai, the water level in the Mekong suddenly rose 3 m.

And from 2014 to 2019, the Jinghong Dam set the Mekong’s seasonal change in motion by alternating the release of large amounts of water at different speeds over the course of the first quarter of the year. And from 2018-2021, Jinghong Dam reduced its outflow for “Maintenance and Service of Power Generation and Grid Systems”.

The change in the Mekong’s hydrological pattern has had a drastic impact on the migration of fish to the tributaries for spawning. The ecology of the river is fascinating and unique.

The water level of the main stream of its course is relatively lower than that of tributaries. Due to the slight decline and change in water flow in the main river course, fish could not swim to spawn in tributaries – resulting in lower fishing yields. Fish is a source of income and serves as a source of protein for the health of 60 million villagers downstream.

The existential threat is not limited to the current of water. The color of the Mekong River has turned from reddish milk tea to a translucent color after sediment was captured upstream by the dams’ reservoirs.

The Thai government has dealt with the existential crisis in the ecology of the river. In fact, Foreign Minister Don Pramudwinai paid a visit in January 2020 to meet China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi to discuss the drought in the lower Mekong.

China has agreed to increase its runoff by 150 cubic meters per second starting Jan. 24. In practice, however, the Chinese dam operator had already reduced the runoff by 150 cubic meters per second before the promised date.

China has used data and figures to claim that water runoff from Chinese territory that is discharged into the lower Mekong River accounts for less than 13% of the total river, and even claims that the water discharged from Chinese dams contributes to it To alleviate droughts and floods downstream.

The new Chinese ambassador to Thailand must therefore prove that the friendship between the two countries remains strong. He cannot just fall back on diplomatic rhetoric. Of course, being called a “younger sibling” and “a family” will light up the hearts of Thais. Yet the evidence of brotherhood will be seen in the unimpeded flow.


Montree Chantawong

Research and campaign manager of TERRA

Montree Chantawong is Research and Campaign Leader for Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA).


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