Dams portend grim future for Mekong Delta: experts

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Critics slam China's hegemonic behavior in the Greater Mekong Sub-region


Children walk along the Mekong River in Phnom Penh on April 5. Riparian nations have pledged to step up cooperation over the river's use amidst fears China's upstream dams are exacerbating a severe regional drought (AFP)

Upstream and lower dams could render the Mekong Delta unviable, and China's intransigence in building them and refusing to share information about their operations will negatively impact the lives of more than 60 million people.

"China has plans to construct up to eight dams in total, some sources say the number could rise to fourteen. It is clear already that Chinese dam construction is having a negative impact on downstream states," Professor Carlyle Thayer of the Australian Defense Force Academy told Thanh Nien Weekly.

"The ecology of the river system downstream has had wide-ranging effects. Dams prevent the downward flow of alluvium which fertilizes the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. Dam construction interferes with the migration of spawning fish. The impact on fisheries reduces the amount of fish and therefore protein that feeds the people in the Lower Mekong," he said.

THREATS LESS MENTIONED

Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, said both the Chinese and Lower Mekong dams will seriously threaten the viability of the Mekong Delta, Vietnam's most important source of fish and its "rice bowl."

"The dams will hold back the silt that rebuilds the Delta each year and keeps the East Sea at bay. Already, smaller alterations of the river's flow in the Delta have created a major problem of seawater infiltration and land submersion."

"The upstream dams will alter the river's flow in still unpredictable ways, threatening the rice fields that produce 40 percent of Vietnam's output and possibly making some population centers uninhabitable," he said.

He also said the two threats less talked about are an earthquake that would rupture a Chinese dam in Yunnan, a seismically active region, or rains of such magnitude that the sluice gates would have to be opened to save one of these large to mega-sized dams.

"In either case, the consequences downstream would be catastrophic," he said.

Larry Wortzel, member of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission in Washington also said dams restrict the migration of species that live in salt water but come up-river into fresh water to spawn.

"Thus, some species of fish and crabs will not be available in parts of the Mekong. The other impact is that when you restrict the water flow of a major river system that flows into the ocean, the salt water ends up migrating up the Mekong Delta. This will affect agriculture in the Mekong Delta since water salinity will change," he said.

The Mekong originates in the Tibetan plateau and flows 4,800 km (2,980 miles) through rice-rich areas of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia before emptying into the East Sea off Vietnam.

"Mighty Mekong" has dropped to its lowest level in 50 years in northern Thailand and Laos, alarming communities who depend on the critical waterway for food, transport, drinking water and irrigation.

More than 60 million people rely in some way on the river, which is the world's largest inland fishery, producing an annual estimated catch of 3.9 million tons, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) comprising Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, who have agreed to cooperate for sustainable development of the Mekong River.

At a meeting with the heads of four Southeast Asian nations on Monday, China's Deputy Foreign Minister Song Tao denied activists' criticism that the hydropower dams had worsened decades-low water levels downstream.

"Statistics show that the recent drought that hit the whole river basin is attributable to the extreme dry weather, and the water level decline of the Mekong River has nothing to do with the hydropower development," he said.

Hegemonic behavior

But China's critics have taken the issue even further. "Security analysts are increasingly concerned that China is using its geostrategic advantage to unduly influence the government in Laos and Cambodia. Their future livelihood is largely in China's hands," Thayer said.

"China condemns great power bullying of smaller countries, but a close look at China's behavior in the Greater Mekong Sub-region indicates that it is Beijing (that is) acting like a hegemon," he added.

Richard Cronin, head of the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington, expressed concern about "an unhealthy geopolitical shift that is underway that seems to favor China, especially in Southeast Asia.

"China has several goals in constructing a massive eight dam cascade in Yunnan... China is determined to incorporate the natural resources of the Mekong Basin into its manufacturing supply chain, expanding its political and economic influence," he said in a statement on February 4, titled "China's activities in Southeast Asia and the implications for US interests."

Cronin added several countries have their own priority projects and ASEAN itself has shown almost no interest in the issue.

"The only institutional player is MRC which was reconstituted in 1995 out of the long moribund Mekong Committee. In theory the MRC exists to promote cooperative, sustainable and equitable water management, but it cannot really do that so long as the member countries are not willing to surrender even some of their sovereign rights," he said.

"˜As a whole'

Experts have called for more cooperation among Mekong riparian countries to mitigate harmful impacts of dam construction on the river.

"The entire Mekong River Basin must be dealt with as a whole when considering dam construction, economic development, the impact on the environment, ecology and climate change, and the human security of the population that depends on the Mekong River," Thayer said.

"Up to now China has asserted its rights but not undertaken its obligations. China must be more transparent about technical data collection, including rainfall, the size of catchment areas, amount of water in reservoirs, and the times and amount of water is released downstream.

"China has cooperated in some matters but what is needed is for China itself, not subordinate administrative units, to join in multilateral cooperation," he said.

HOLDING BACK

China is making things difficult for downstream Mekong riparian countries by not providing accurate and timely information about its interventions in the Mekong River, experts said on April 3 at a conference that preceded the first Mekong River Commission (MRC) summit.

The riparian countries, including Vietnam, have asked China to provide better updates on its interventions, officials said at the conference.

Despite China's participation at the two-day conference on Water Resource Management, Chaiyuth Sukhsri, lecturer at the Chulalongkorn University in Thailand, said the information that China has provided was not adequate and exact.

Chaiyuth, an engineer, said China never gave all the information at once but only gave it "drop by drop" to see how other countries would react and based its next moves on the reactions.

He suggested that stations be built along the China border to measure water levels and learn how China is operating its dams at particular points of time, for instance to know when the dams are discharging or holding water.

Le Duc Trung, office chief of MRC Vietnam, said "any operation in the river will leave an impact. Power dams that hold water will cause certain effects."

When China began operating the Man Loan dam in 2003, Laos suffered draught in several areas.

"[The dams] will always cause impacts, the issue is how and how much," Trung said.

China has agreed to share information on river flows and dam operations, the MRC said in a media release on April 5 on its first summit early this week.

"In a side meeting between the MRC and China at the Summit, China provided further hydro-meteorological data concerning the operation of its dams on the mainstream Mekong during the current dry season," it said.

The first MRC summit comes at a time large swathes of the river in downstream countries like Laos resemble a desert, affecting fisheries as well as maritime trade. China has also been affected by this, but critics say its rejection of the contention that upstream dams are responsible for the situation makes it difficult to take mitigating steps.

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