One year after one of the driest years in half a century, tens of millions of residents along the Mekong River are still trying to determine the cause of poor fish yields and an unprecedented scarcity of the water they use in agriculture and irrigation.
They should have had an answer, months ago.
Last June, a public interest group called Save The Mekong Coalition asked the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which serves as an international advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, to release complete data on the poor river conditions.
In March 2010, the MRC released a report attributing low flow on the river to poor rainfall, alone.
Critics in the region and abroad argued that the record lows were exacerbated by upstream Chinese dams.
Last summer, the MRC met with Chinese officials and the organization pledged to release an amended report that would consider the shared dam data in August 2010.
Seven months later, the MRC has still not delivered its promise.
"Indeed, we had hoped to publish the updated low flows report for 2011 earlier, but our modeling team[s] were diverted onto other urgent work"¦ leading to a delay in the analysis required for the report," said Jeremy Bird, Chief Executive Officer of the MRC Secretariat in a Wednesday email. "However, the draft is now almost complete and it should be available within the next six to eight weeks."
Bird, who is stepping down from his post at the end of this week, has maintained that the drought during March and April of 2010 was mainly a basin-wide phenomenon.
"Fundamentally the main conclusions of the initial report we circulated in March 2010 still remain valid and so do not expect to see any major changes."
Wild card dams
DOWN THE RIVER...
Two hundred and sixty three non-governmental organizations from 51 countries submitted a letter on Monday (March 21) urging the prime ministers of Laos and Thailand to immediately cancel the proposed Xayaburi Dam on the Mekong River's mainstream in Northern Laos.
The letter was submitted in advance of the Mekong River Commission's (MRC)'s 33rd Joint Committee Meeting, scheduled for 25-26 March in Sihanoukville, Cambodia.
During the gathering, the four member countries are expected to make a preliminary decision on whether or not to proceed with the dam.
Since 2009, tens of thousands of people have submitted petitions and letters to the region's Prime Ministers and to the Mekong River Commission calling for the Mekong River to remain free-flowing and for Thailand not to purchase electricity from the dam.
"In an era of climate change and a historical tendency to over-forecast electricity needs in Thailand, the governments must re-think building the dam in terms of its costs to native eco-systems, food and water security, and local livelihoods," said Shalmali Guttal of Focus on the Global South.
The Xayaburi Dam is the most advanced of eleven large dams proposed for the Mekong River's lower mainstream. While a preliminary decision on the Xayaburi Dam is expected to be made this week, a final decision is expected to come down on April 22.
In the meantime, international environmental groups have demanded public access to water level data for three of China's upstream dams"”with particular emphasis placed on the Xiaowan.
China started operating its first dam - the Manwan dam - on the Lancang (upper Mekong) main-stream 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.
China hopes to almost double its hydropower capacity - to at least 300 gigawatts by 2020 - by building four more dams on the Mekong.
In July 2009, the Xiaowan Dam started filling its reservoir. The filling of the Xiaowan Dam's reservoir coincided with a period of reduced rainfall and then drought, Save The Mekong Coalition (SMC) reported.
"While less rainfall was undoubtedly a key factor in the 2010 drought, a question that remains urgent and unanswered is whether the Xiaowan dam's reservoir filling compounded the drought's severity," the SMC said in an open letter written last year.
China has maintained its dams are beneficial because they can store water for the dry season and control flooding in the rainy season.
A number of academics, however, have linked changes in the Mekong River's daily hydrology and sediment load to the same dams.
"˜Complete lack of transparency'
Starting last year, China launched a campaign to counter the perception that its dams were negatively affecting its downstream neighbors.
Critics of the effort have lambasted the Asian giant for being reluctant to fully disclose complete water datasets and information on the operation and construction of its Mekong River dams.
"China long withheld information on its plans for the massive Lancang and individual dam projects," said Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C. "Because these dams collectively are designed to produce very large amounts of hydroelectric power, they are regarded as highly strategic from an economic and energy security point of view and critical sources of energy to maintain politically important high growth levels."
According to Cronin, China insists that because the upper half of the Mekong River flows through Chinese territory, the information regarding dam operation is private.
"China typically regards information about dams and their operation as state secrets," he said. "The issue is a complete lack of transparency."
Milton Osborne, a visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said that the cause of the drought conditions couldn't be determined without access to the data.
"Without the statistics we can only guess that this might have been the case," he said.
However, academics all concurred that the lack of information from the Chinese side would only exacerbate the cloud of skepticism.
"China has not yet provided enough information on the operation, in particular, of the Xiaowan Dam, whose reservoir, when and if it is fully filled, can regulate the seasonal flow of the river," Cronin said. "The problem is that China has not provided enough information to know with any certainty how much water it may have been withholding or releasing."
Cronin said that, at the moment, the threat from Chinese dams and those planned for the Lower Mekong are not very well understood by Lower Mekong governments and leaders, and perhaps even by senior leaders in Beijing.
"But just like climate change, whose effects will be exacerbated by mainstream dams, the terrible consequences of destroying a river that is the main economic base of the Lower Mekong region cannot be wished away," he said.