For Whom the Mighty Mekong Flows

Carl Middleton and Pianporn Deetes
Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Opinion Piece published in The Bangkok Post

Since the end of last year, Jeerasak Intayos, a 38-year-old villager from Chiang Khong district of Chiang Rai, has seen the Mekong River's level drop dramatically. Mr Jeerasak works with the Chiang Khong Conservation Group that has monitored the Mekong and its development for over a decade, and he has never seen the river this low. He witnesses first-hand how riverside communities are now suffering from declining fish catch, scarcity of water for drinking, irrigation and livestock, and how river transportation has been grounded, affecting tourism and trade.

The current drought is now widely declared as a water crisis by government officials in Thailand, Laos and China's Yunnan province. And it is, but that's not the whole story.

For Mr Jeerasak, the Mekong is not only drying up. Since the early 1990s, the river's water level has been fluctuating unnaturally. Even recently in early March, at the height of the drought, the water level briefly rose by almost half a metre allowing the grounded Laotian boats to continue their journey towards Luang Prabang.

Without rain, Mr Jeerasak knows the Mekong's waters must have been controlled upstream. Like other Mekong dwellers in Chiang Khong, he believes dams in the upper reaches in China have something to do with the changes of the Mother River.

China started operating its first dam - the Manwan dam - on the Lancang (upper Mekong) mainstream in 1992. The second and third dams, Dachaoshan and Jinghong, were completed in 2003 and 2008. In October 2009, China announced that its fourth dam, the massive Xiaowan dam, had started filling its reservoir.

Academics have linked changes to the Mekong River's daily hydrology and sediment load since the early 1990s to China's dams. Local communities and NGOs in northern Thailand have recorded loss of fish and aquatic plant resources impacting the local economies and people's livelihoods. It is not surprising, therefore, that Mr Jeerasak and others in downstream countries are suspicious of the Lancang dams' contribution to the current drought. For a start, commissioning of the Manwan dam coincided with the 1992-1993 Mekong drought, and the role the dam played in that drought has never been satisfactorily explained.

And now the filling of the Xiaowan dam's reservoir happens to coincide with the onset of the current drought and the subsequent drop in downstream flows. At 292 metres high, the Xiaowan dam is the world's tallest arch dam and has a reservoir capacity of at least 15 cubic kilometres of water, which is approximately five times larger than the combined storage of the three existing Lancang dams and will take 10 years to fill.

Therefore, whilst less rainfall is undoubtedly a key factor in the current drought, whether the Xiaowan dam's reservoir filling over the last rainy season has compounded the drought's severity remains an open and urgent question.

In media statements and reports in early March, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) sought to exonerate China's dams from the severity of the drought - despite the fact that China had not shared its data with the MRC on the Lancang dam reservoir levels. Indeed, although China has been a "dialogue partner" of the MRC since 1996, it wasn't until 2002 that it began sharing any data at all, and then only for the rainy season for the lower section of the river at Jinghong and Manwan.

Perhaps with some relief therefore, on March 25, the MRC announced that China had agreed to release partial river datasets until the end of the current drought period to the MRC. This is certainly an unprecedented and very positive step by China in the right direction.

But, unfortunately, there is a critical flaw as the most crucial data is still being withheld. The data to be released are only from hydro-meteorological stations at Jinghong and Manwan. These sites are located downstream of the Xiaowan dam that may be the real culprit if water is being stored.
If China really wanted to start building trust with downstream communities and demonstrate that it is not contributing to the current drought, it is the data on the Xiaowan dam reservoir's water levels that must be released to the public.

Looking to the future, there are further steps along the road to good neighbourliness that must come next.

For example, what good reasons are there to stop sharing river data at the end of the current dry season? Regular public reporting on dam operation and water levels would build help genuine partnership with downstream neighbours.

And, it mustn't be forgotten that China's dams were built without any discussion with its downstream neighbours.

It is long overdue that the damage these dams have caused downstream be officially recognised by China and negotiations initiated over compensation to communities, as well as serious consideration be given to how to minimise future impact.

This week, Mr Jeerasak and his riverine community fellows will present their concerns to the Chinese embassy in Bangkok. Hopefully the Big Brother of the Mekong basin will recognise the downstream impact of its hydropower dams, and the MRC governments will start meaningful dialogue with China at their summit in Hua Hin, to immediately solve these problems, and ensure the well-being as well as food security of their peoples.

Pianporn Deetes and Carl Middleton are campaigners with the NGO International Rivers, a partner of the Save the Mekong coalition.