Mekong needs tough govt stance

Mekong needs tough govt stance

On Feb 8, Charge d'Affaires of Chinese Embassy Yang Xin paid a courtesy call to Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, in which they exchanged Chinese New Year's wishes, looking ahead for warmer relations and closer cooperation.

One topic was missing from their friendly talks: the fluctuating water levels of the Mekong River which has been dry since last month largely because of equipment testing at Jinghong Dam.

It's a missed opportunity.

At the end of December, China had warned of lower water levels as it planned to reduce water discharges from its upstream Jinghong Dam in Yunnan from 1,900 to 1,000 cubic metres per second, starting on Jan 5.

It's reported the equipment testing was due to end on Jan 24, but sources along the Thai-Lao border told Radio Free Asia earlier this month that water levels in their area have not returned to their normal levels.

On Feb 12, the Mekong River Commission, an inter-governmental organisation made up of representatives of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, said water levels between China's Yunnan and Vietnam's Mekong Delta "dropped considerably since the beginning of the year due to lower rainfall, flow changes upstream, hydropower operations in the Mekong tributaries, and outflow restrictions from Jinghong Dam".

It called the drops "worrying".

"Since the initial fall on Jan 1, outflow levels at Jinghong from 1 to 7 January were stable at 785 m³/s but gradually rose to 1,400 m³/s on 15 January, representing a 1.07-metre rise in the water level.

The outflow then dropped to 740 m³/s during 15–23 January, before rising to 990 m³/s on 29 January. It then fell gradually, reaching 800 m³/s on Feb 11," it said.

The MRC on Feb 22 said: "According to MRC's observed water level data, the outflow at Jinghong hydrological station rose from 786 cubic metres per second (m³/s) on Monday last week to 1,020 m³/s today."

For years, people in the river basin have complained about the negative impact of upstream development projects in the Mekong.

The river, with the Chinese name of Lancang, stretches about 4,900 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau in China to Vietnam, and is being dotted with hydropower projects.

Since the 1960s, China, Thailand and Laos have erected dozens of dams, and dozens more are being constructed.

Rapids blasting to widen the waterways for large vessels by China is another factor contributing to adverse changes in the river ecology.

These massive power-producing structures have choked the river of its natural resources.

Fishermen in Thailand and Cambodia now say they can no longer profit from their trade because the fish population has dwindled.

"The water level is too low, and the climate is also changing," one Thai fisherman told German public broadcast service DW in a report published about a year ago.

"The water is lower than in other years. In the clear and shallow water, there are far fewer fish coming up the river."

"I only catch 60% of what I used to catch," he added.

The problem has gone on for years, and activists and government officials have repeatedly expressed concerns over the matter.

In 2018, the MRC said hydropower development on the river will result in food insecurity and poverty in the region.

Yet real action has not been taken to address the issue of fluctuating water levels in the Mekong River. China has agreed to work with the MRC to disclose when it will withhold water.

However, the ongoing water crisis means that words are not enough.

China knows full well that millions of people depend on the river for their livelihoods. The country said it believes cordial relations should do more to ease this crisis for Thailand and other downstream countries.

The Thai government, at the same time, must listen to the civic groups, and make sure Beijing gets the message and restores the water flow.

Gen Prayut cannot claim he is not informed about the Mekong crisis. In the past weeks, several media outlets have reported the issue.

During the Feb 8 meeting with Mr Yang, Gen Prayut should have highlighted the plight of fishermen and farmers who rely on the natural resources provided by the Mekong River.

The PM should have shown that he's on the side of Thailand by raising the issue with the envoy.

At the same time, Beijing must understand that the Mekong River belongs to everyone living along the body of water.

China has huge international ambitions, and it will need to convince many countries to hop on board its economic agendas.

If it hopes to win the hearts and minds of the people of Indochina, Beijing must show that it is willing to be fair to people living outside of China.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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