China must be sincere on Mekong

China must be sincere on Mekong

Photo of the Mekong River on the Thai-Lao border in Chiang Rai in July 2019. (Photo by Sommai Iaopradistha)
Photo of the Mekong River on the Thai-Lao border in Chiang Rai in July 2019. (Photo by Sommai Iaopradistha)

Last week, the Bangkok Post published remarks by Yang Yang, a spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Thailand, explaining how China and others are promoting water resources cooperation in the Mekong "for the benefit of the people in the region".

I, and members of the Thai Mekong People's Network from Eight Provinces, disagree. People have shared and used the Mekong's water and related resources for generations. From fishing to agriculture, navigation to water supply, people have derived multiple benefits from the Mekong.

However, we have witnessed major changes to our river system over the last two decades. The emergence of Mekong development initiatives, including the construction of large-scale dams, have adversely impacted the Mekong and its resources. Moreover, they have not benefited the people in the region. Instead, those living within the river basin, whose livelihoods and well-being are intimately tied to the health of the river, have borne the costs -- while large corporations and wealthy elites have benefited from exploiting and controlling the Mekong.

No matter how often "green" or "sustainable" is added as a prefix to large-scale projects -- from the "green railway" to the "Green Lancang-Mekong Initiative" -- the reality is, these so-called "green" projects are destroying and damaging the Mekong's environmental abundance and productivity, which has supported local economies and cultures throughout the region for generations.

Take the Lancang cascade, where 10 dams have already been built on China's section of the Mekong. By regulating the amount of water that flows downstream, Yang Yang claims that the Lancang cascade is helping to reduce economic losses to -- and provide a "more convenient and greener" mode of transportation for -- local riparian communities.

Let's be clear. Local riparian communities are not beneficiaries of the Lancang cascade. Prior to the dams, the rise and fall of the Mekong followed the seasons. The Mekong's seasonal flow changes and its rich ecosystems and productivity are intrinsically linked. The river's abundant resources in turn sustain people's lives and livelihoods. From massive fish migrations attuned to seasonal changes in water levels and flows, to the seasonal flooding and rejuvenation of wetlands, to the nutrient-rich river bank gardens that emerge in the dry-season, the Mekong's annual drought-flood cycle has provided important sources of food, income and recreation for over 60 million people in the basin.

Yet, the Lancang cascade has changed all this, particularly in northern and northeast Thailand, where members of the Thai Mekong People's Network live. The rise and fall of the Mekong no longer follow the seasons and rains. Instead, this depends largely on when the Lancang dams release water. This has resulted in abnormal fluctuations -- not only between seasons, but also on a daily basis -- with devastating consequences.

We have seen our river banks and boats washed away. We have seen a major decline in our fisheries and river weed, which has impacted our ability to make a living. The rapids, boulders and beaches, which normally emerge during the dry season providing refuge and habitats for birds and animals, remain submerged, impacting on biodiversity.

But for the rapacious developers of the Mekong, this is not enough. Recently, there has been a renewed push, under the so-called "Green" Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Initiative, to blast a series of rapids in Northern Thailand to improve navigation and trade. The revival comes in spite of the Thai government suspending the project 15 years ago due to concern over national security and social and environmental impacts.

Yang Yang's remarks claim that the rapids blasting will provide "more convenient and green" transport for local people. But locals already operate their boats year round. Like the dams, this project is not about making life more convenient for local people -- it's about increasing commercial trade and profits by enabling year-round traffic of large commercial ships from China.

Yang Yang's remarks also emphasise how as an upstream country "China pays great attention to the concerns and requirements of downstream countries", including through sharing hydrological data and facilitating cooperation. While sharing data is very important, it is not same as paying attention to and addressing the concerns and needs of downstream countries and local communities.

To date, data-sharing has occurred through government channels and has largely failed to keep the public informed. Moreover, notifications shared through these channels have not addressed the impacts on downstream communities and the Mekong's ecological system. The statement that "we drink from the same river" does not guarantee a relationship of cooperation and understanding. Rather, a peaceful coexistence of people who share the Mekong River Basin can only be achieved through mutual respect, and through genuine dialogue and cooperation between the riparian governments and local people.

If China and other governments are sincere about making the Lancang-Mekong "a river of friendship, cooperation and prosperity", the priority should be listening to the voices of people living along the Mekong who live with the river and continue to rely on its resources.

Niwat Roykaew is a co-founder of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group, and the Thai People's Mekong Network in Eight Provinces.

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