Chinese dams cloud Mekong River relations

Chinese dams cloud Mekong River relations

A dried riverbank area of the Mekong River in Pak Chom district in the northeastern province of Loei. China was pressed in June last year to share year-round data on water levels. AFP
A dried riverbank area of the Mekong River in Pak Chom district in the northeastern province of Loei. China was pressed in June last year to share year-round data on water levels. AFP

The new Chinese Ambassador to Thailand, Han Zhiqiang compares relations between the two countries and their collective effort to combat Covid-19 pandemic as being "one family".

The ambassador insists he is not exaggerating and said his sentiments resonate with what is happening on the ground. He said Thais and Chinese have had a good rapport, quoting a phrase that reinforces affinity between both countries: "Chinese and Thais are no strangers; both are descended from the fraternity."

Even so, the bilateral bonds and 46 years of diplomatic relations will not be tested only by the aid during the Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic rapport. In years to come, water resource management in the Mekong River will be proof of the kinship of both nations.

China has developed a series of hydro dams on the Lancang Jiang, which is the upper reach of the Mekong River in Chinese territory. The mighty transnational river that once roamed free, leaping from the origin Tibetan plateau and then running out in the southern part of Vietnam, has now been fragmented, slivered into segments, by a cascade of hydro-dams, 11 of them in China and a few of them already built in Laos.

The hacking of the Mekong by the "older sibling" raised questions among critics in downstream countries and the international community. Villagers along the Mekong River such as those in Chiang Rai province have lamented of the sudden change in the Mekong River flow -- something that affects their fishery and farming, not to mention floods that ravage 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, started its operation. The total combined volume of water stored in these dams is not less than 41,700 million cubic metres, so that means a gargantuan amount of water has been scooped out from the river's ecology.

The severe change has been observed since 2007 at least in two aspects: the year-round fluctuation of water levels in the Mekong and the unnatural ups and downs of the water flow of the Mekong, permanently wreaking havoc to its natural cycle.

The fluctuation of water levels in the Mekong clearly emerges throughout the winter and dry seasons. For example, from Dec 13-17, 2013 as the Jinghong Dam -- another Chinese dam -- abruptly discharged water. The water level in the Mekong suddenly rose by 3m in Chiang Rai's Chiang Saen district.

And from 2014-2019, the Jinghong Dam has oscillated the seasonal change of the Mekong by alternating the release of large volumes of water in different speeds throughout the first quarter of the year. And from 2018-2021, the Jinghong Dam reduced its discharge for "maintenance and service of the power generation and power grids systems".

The change in the Mekong River's hydrological pattern has had drastic effects on the migration of fish into tributaries for spawning. The river's ecology is fascinating and unique.

The water level of the mainstream of its course is relatively lower than tributaries. With the slight drop and change of water flow in the main river course, fish could not swim to spawn into tributaries -- resulting in a lower fishery yield. Fish are a source of income, and in terms of health, serve as source of protein for 60 million villagers downstream.

The existential threat is not only limited to the water flow. The colour of the Mekong River has transformed from reddish milk-tea into a translucent colour after sediments from upstream were trapped by the dams' reservoirs.

The Thai government has grappled with the existential crisis of the river's ecology. Indeed, Don Pramudwinai, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, made a visit in January 2020 to meet China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi to consult with him on drought in the lower reach of the Mekong.

China agreed to increase its discharge by 150 cubic metres per second from Jan 24. But in practice, the Chinese dam operator prior to the promised deadline had already cut the discharge by 150 cubic metres per second.

China has used data and figures to claim that water outflow from Chinese territory discharged in the lower Mekong River accounts for less than 13% of the entire river, and even claimed that water discharged from Chinese dams help alleviate drought and floods downstream.

So the new Chinese ambassador to Thailand will have a challenge to prove that the countries' friendship remains strong. He can't just resort to diplomatic rhetoric. Of course, being dubbed as a "younger sibling" and "one family", will make Thais' hearts glow. Yet the proof of fraternity will be seen in the river that runs unimpeded.

Montree Chantawong is Coordinator of The Mekong Butterfly, an environmental group based in Thailand.

Montree Chantawong

Research and campaign director of TERRA

Montree Chantawong is research and campaign director of Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA).

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