Mekong nations call for China assistance amid drought

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Downstream nations along Asia's Mekong River hailed China's move to share data on reservoir levels and called for more cooperation as a severe drought heightens concerns that its dams have distorted water flows.

The dry weather has reduced Mekong water levels to their lowest in three decades, affecting more than 60 million people in the river's lower basin, an area larger than the U.S. state of Texas. China agreed on March 25 to share water-level data at two dams to ease pressure from nations downstream, including Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"I would like to thank the Chinese government for this valuable cooperation," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said Monday in an opening speech at the first-ever summit of Mekong nations in Hua Hin, Thailand. "I also hope that such genuine effort of cooperation would become more regular."

The drought has raised scrutiny about management of the river as governments aim to harness its potential to provide food and generate electricity. Mainstream dams constitute "the single largest threat" to the Mekong's wetlands, home to the world's largest inland fishery, the Mekong River Commission said in an April 2 report.

China's capacity to improve water flows is "limited" as the river's low levels are mainly due to a shortage of rainfall, said Jeremy Bird, chief executive officer of the commission, a regional body that advises governments on managing the basin. Increased flows from China's dams in January did help alleviate the severity of the water shortage, he said.

"˜Fluctuating unnaturally'

"The water in the Mekong River is not only drying up, but the water levels are fluctuating unnaturally," Pianporn Deetes, an activist with environmental group International Rivers, said at a seminar at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok last week. "Since the first dam was built, local people have seen a loss of fish catch and the destruction of aquatic resources."

China and Myanmar, dialogue partners of the Mekong River Commission, both sent envoys to join the prime ministers of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam at Monday's meeting.

The meeting "serves as an important wake-up call that the problems and challenges being faced by the Mekong River and states need to be addressed at the highest level," Abhisit said. "The Mekong River is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change."

Chinese officials have defended the country's water management, stressing that it is also suffering from drought. Most rivers in southern China are at about 40 percent of normal levels and more than 600 have dried up completely, leaving almost 20 million people short of drinking water, said Chen Mingzhong, a ministry of water resources official.

"˜Upstream country'

"As an upstream country with a high sense of responsibility, we do nothing harming the interest of riparian countries downstream," Chen said in a presentation to counterparts at the summit in Thailand. China contributes about 13.5 percent of water flows to the lower Mekong.

China has pledged to strengthen communication with downstream countries, inviting them to a training program on flood management in June. Floods on the 2,700-mile river in August 2008 claimed lives in Thailand and Laos.

China has completed four dams to date and another four are planned before 2025 for a total of 15,200 megawatts, enough to provide electricity for 75 million people. Another 11 dams are in various stages of development downstream in the lower Mekong that would deliver the same amount of electricity.

Not all bad

"The Mekong has become one of the most active regions in the world for hydropower development," the Mekong River Commission said in its State of the Basin report issued every five to seven years. The dams will "effectively stop" river fish migration, "leading to reduced production, substantial economic cost and social deprivation," the report said.

"You cannot say all dams are bad," said Thanin Bumrungsap, vice president of Italian-Thai Development Pcl, Thailand's biggest construction company. Thai farmers, for instance, "couldn't grow rice two or three times a year as they do now if there were no dams, no irrigation systems."

Rice production in Thailand, the world's largest exporter, may decline as drier-than-normal weather curbs yields. Officials have blamed the drought on the El Nino weather phenomenon, characterized by warmer sea-surface temperatures across the equatorial Pacific that can cut rainfall in Asia.

China's first upstream dam became operational in 1993, with subsequent openings in 2003 and 2008. The country started sharing data on rainy season reservoir levels in 2002. Last month was the first time it shared data in the dry season.

Fish catch

In the northern Thai province of Chiang Rai, the closest point in the country downstream from China, fishermen say their catches have declined in recent years. River levels can change by a few meters per day without warning, an occurrence they blame on the upstream dams.

"In the past few years it's been hard to catch a lot of fish because of China's dams," said fisherman Sompon Kumla, who makes about 3,000 baht ($97) per month, down from 10,000 baht in previous years. "The government needs to talk to the Chinese and tell them to release the water."

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