WaterChina’s Mekong River dams undermine neighbors’ economies, food production

Published 15 October 2012

Five Chinese dams on the Mekong River’s upper portions have caused rapid changes in water level, and other adverse effects, downstream, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, where millions of people rely on the river for water, food, and transportation

Xipoming Chinese dam along the Mekong // Source: baoanhdatmui.vn

At the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Russia, China announced that its large damn on the Mekong River, has started generating electricity.

The dam joins four other Chinese dams that have been commissioned on the Mekong River’s upper portions. The dams have caused rapid changes in water level, and other adverse effects, downstream, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos, where millions of people rely on the river for water, food, and transportation.

The dam received little media attention around the world.”China’s Mekong dams are so remote they receive little coverage in the Western media,” Milton Osborne, a Southeast Asian expert at the Lowy Institute, told Radio Free Asia. “Yet, like the more readily viewed sites for proposed dams in Laos and Cambodia, what is happening in China will eventually alter the productive capabilities of mainland Southeast Asia’s longest and most important river, a river vital to the sustenance of sixty million people of the Lower Mekong Basin.”

Beijing claims that the group of dams will not affect the countries that sit downstream as only 13.5 percent of water in the Mekong flows through China. Osborne says this claim has been discredited, and that  the water from China is significant in maintaining the dry-season flow for the downstream countries, for a total of 40 percent of the river’s volume overall.

So with each dam China builds there is the prospect of a greater diminishing of the flow, particularly as both Xiaowan (another of the five Chinese dams in operation) and Nuozhadu will act as storage dams rather than having a ‘run of the river’ character,” Osborne told RFA. “There is no doubt that the commissioning of the five dams will have other long-term effects downstream,” including impacting the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the river.”

Vietnamese president Truong Tan Sang said at the APEC summit that “We cannot deny the fact that tensions over water resources are threatening economic growth in many countries and representing a source of conflict, especially at a time when countries are accelerating their economic development.”

Sangsaid that the management of water resourced in the Mekong River is quickly turning into a “pressing issue with direct and unfavorable bearing” on Vietnam, especially when it comes to rice production.

Vietnam, world’s second largest rice exporter is located in the lowest part of the Mekong Basin. “Water resources in the country, including river and underground water, “are seriously declining, while floods; sea level rises, high tides, coastal erosion… have been exacerbated,” Sang said.

Cambodia is also affected by the damn as the Tonle Sap; Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake could also be shrinking. ”There is also the likelihood that Cambodia’s Great Lake will be reduced in area during the wet season, to the detriment of its current vital role as a source of much of Cambodia’s protein consumption through its vast bounty of fish,” Osborne told RFA

The Cambodian Fishery Coalition, a community-based organization set up by fishery folk in the country, stated in a recent report that the Chinese dams “have impacted the lake’s fish sanctuary.”

When the hydropower dams were established, the community people living around the Tonle Sap Lake were severely affected, as they have transformed fish resources, and lead to progressive loss.”

China may have control over the dams and is largely ignoring its neighbors as a result of it, but this could backfire in the future, according to Cronin.

China’s disregard for its neighbors’ interests has generated a growing store of ill will in downstream countries, which will make it difficult for Beijing to achieve its longer-term goals of securing the Mekong and its own influence over it,” Cronin told RFA.