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Mekong countries must confront China over dam impact, experts say ahead of China-led meeting

Cambodia Asia Phnom Penh River Travel Mekong River (CC0 Public Domain/MaxiPixel)
August 24, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China’s extensive damming of the upper Mekong River has reduced water flows, threatening downstream countries Cambodia and Vietnam with environmental harm and food shortages, said experts in advance of a summit meeting of the multilateral  Mekong-Lancang Cooperation group.

The summit, to be held on Aug. 24 as a virtual meeting, will be co-chaired by Lao Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, with Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen participating. The group is widely seen as a rival to the separate four-nation Mekong River Commission (MRC) and as a forum controlled by China to promote its own interests.

Ham Oudom, a Cambodian consultant on natural resources and water governance, told RFA in an interview this week that downstream countries on the Mekong should confront China forcefully over the harm caused by China’s control over water flows on their countries’ economies and environment.

“It appears to me that China seemingly wants to avoid its responsibilities for the fact that it has contributed to devastation and impacts on downstream countries, as in the case of the Tonle Sap Lake,” he said.

“In the past, there were no mechanisms through which we could raise our concerns, and we could not identify anyone who was responsible,” he said, adding, “Now there are many mechanisms in place, but countries seem to talk only about sustainable development, and don’t dare address the root causes of our problems.”

“We should carefully reflect on the negative impacts we have already seen in the past resulting from the construction of hydropower dams,” he said.

Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, a large inland lake whose waters ebb and flow with the annual cycle of the river connecting it to the Mekong, has been drying at a rapid rate in recent years, threatening the fish stocks providing millions of Cambodians with their main source of protein.

The inland lake is one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots and is Southeast Asia’s most bountiful source of freshwater fish. The greater Mekong river system provides fish, water, and fertilizer for 60 million Southeast Asians.

Meanwhile, reduced water flows on the Mekong have even further reduced the volumes of water flowing back to the Tonle Sap, local fisherman and head of the Tonle Sap Fishing Community Alliance Long Sochet told RFA.

“There seems to be no pulse pushing the natural flow from the Mekong River, and all we see now is a rise due to floods from the various streams surrounding the Tonle Sap,” he said.

“The Mekong River has not yet reversed its flow to the lake, and if not for the rain we’ve had in surrounding areas, the water level would not have risen at all.”

The Mekong-Lancang group also competes with a 2009 U.S. program called the Lower Mekong Initiative, involving Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. China, which has ruled Tibet, the source of the Mekong, since 1951, refers to the waterway as the Lancang River and has built 11 dams on it.

‘China holds all the cards’

Talks at the coming Mekong-Lancang summit are unlikely to effectively address questions about water security in the region, though, said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in California.

“China holds all the cards. It has the dams upriver and it hosts the meeting,” Ear said. “It has the gold and so it makes the rules.”

“China needs to stop building dams and needs to blow up some dams to release water back to the Mekong. This really is a zero-sum game. What is happening now to lower Mekong countries is attributable to China.”

China has built 11 large dams on the river since the 1990s and has more planned or under construction on the 3,100 mile river that originates on the Tibetan Plateau and empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam.

Laos, aiming to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” is also building a series of dams on the Mekong to boost the generation of hydroelectric power which it plans to sell to other countries.

Vietnam also under threat

Vietnam’s access to water is also increasingly under threat, with almost 70 percent of its resources now coming in from rivers outside the country and water flows regulated more and more by upriver foreign dams, one government expert told the National Assembly in Hanoi on Aug. 17.

Around half of Vietnam’s 200 rivers enter the country from outside its borders, but these bring in 63 percent of the surface water used in Vietnam for domestic, agricultural, and industrial use, Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development Nguyen Xuan Cuong said, according to state media reports.

The quantity and quality of water available to Vietnam is thus directly controlled by the growing number of hydropower projects managed by China and other countries upstream on the Red and Mekong Rivers, Nguyen said.

Vietnam is the last stop for water flowing into the country from China, Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand, Le Anh Tuan—a climate change and water resource expert at Vietnam’s Can Tho University—told RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

“The amount of rain falling into the Mekong River in Vietnam is very small compared to the total amount of river water flowing down from countries upstream,” Le said, adding, “This means that Vietnam depends almost completely on water resources from other countries.”

The Mekong River Commission — a regional group made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam — has meanwhile issued several warnings about the impact on downstream countries of China’s dams upstream, said Dang Hung Vo, former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and the Environment.

“But China seems not to pay any attention,” Dang said.

“The countries along the lower Mekong have come together to require that China share information about its hydropower projects, but China has not responded so far to these requests,” he said.

‘Prepare for the worst’

Ho Phi Long, Director of the Water Management and Climate Change Center at the National University in Ho Chi Minh City, told RFA on Aug. 17 that countries on the lower Mekong must “prepare for the worst,” so that they are not made hostage later to political pressures from outside.

There is no lack of water coming into Vietnam, but the yearly distribution is not consistent, said Le Anh Tuan.

“For example, when we don’t need more water, the volume of water flowing into the country is too great,” he said.

“But when we need more water for our daily needs or for use in cultivation, the amount of water flowing into Vietnam is much less than expected, and this causes an increase of salt-water intrusion in the Mekong Delta region.”

Because Vietnam is still a developing country, Ho Phi Long added, the country has not experienced the full impact of water shortages yet. “But as we develop, and as we start to face real shortages, the country’s economy will have more trouble.”