By Kalinga Seneviratne*
China would like to project the release of Mekong River waters from its dams in March to “assist” drought-stricken farmers and fisheries further downstream, especially in Vietnam, as a magnanimous gesture from a friendly neighbour. But that action is in fact the reflection of a greater environmental and political crisis that is brewing in the region.
China announced middle of March that in response to a Vietnamese request, it will discharge from March 15 to April 10 water from the Jinghong hydropower station on the Mekong River in Yunnan province to the lower reaches of the Mekong River to alleviate drought in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
“In order to accommodate the concerns of countries at the lower reach of the Mekong River, the Chinese government decides to overcome its own difficulties to offer emergency water flows,” Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Lu Kang announced in a regular news briefing on March 15.
There is however scepticism in some quarters in the region that China is playing politics with water while farmers and fishermen in the lower parts of the Mekong River are suffering from a joint threat of drought and water salination.
In March, 11 provinces in the Mekong Delta area of Vietnam have declared a drought and saltwater intrusion emergency, with canals being dredged to provide drought-hit farmers with water. China’s reservoirs that have had a huge impact on the flow in the Mekong River is a factor leading to damage caused by salinity in the Mekong Delta.
According to Vietnam’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, there are over 1.5 million hectares of the winter-spring rice crop in the Mekong Delta that have been affected by saltwater intrusion. Because of the dams in China and also Laos and Cambodia, the volume of water coming through is not enough to push the saltwater back to the sea. Consequently, the Mekong Delta is invaded by saltwater.
Vietnamese environmental scientist Dr Le Huy Ba argues that saltwater will continue intruding deeply into the planes and when saltwater encroaches into the vast fields in the lowlands it will be retained there because this is a low-lying area. As a result, local farmers will suffer from salinity. “We are unable to live with climate change. The current solutions such as building breakwaters and dredging canals to keep fresh water are just temporary,” he noted in an interview with VNS.
The Mekong is Asia’s longest river stretching over 4,350km. It originates on the Tibetan plateau in China and runs through Yunnan and Myanmar border to Thailand and Laos, then down to Cambodia and, finally, splitting into a network of smaller rivers (known as the Mekong Delta) and emptying its waters to the South China Sea off southern Vietnam.
Almost half of its length, the Mekong river flows through China. Since 1994, China has built six dams on the Mekong and another 7 are on the works. In addition, in the mid-2000s, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, and Malaysian companies revived plans for eleven large hydropower projects on the Lower Mekong mainstream. Nine of these proposed dams would be in Laos, and two would be in Cambodia. Most of the electricity would be sold to Thailand and Vietnam with Laos having the ambition to be the “power grid” of the Mekong region.
The Lower Mekong River is a major source of food security in Southeast Asia. Of the 60 million people who live in the river basin, an estimated 80 percent rely directly on the river for their food and livelihoods. Millions of villagers grow vegetables in riverbank gardens. It is the world’s largest and most productive inland fishery.
In 1995, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam signed a treaty to promote cooperation in their use and management of the Lower Mekong River Basin. They created the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and as part of the treaty, the governments agreed to consult with one another on proposals for Lower Mekong Dams.
The four governments have found it difficult to implement the treaty. Mekong states usually claim the Mekong River flowing through their countries as their ‘sovereignty’ territory with each state having the right for exploiting its benefits.
The MRC has conducted many scientific studies and given warnings to restrict and stop the construction of hydropower dams in the Mekong River to ensure sustainable development of all countries that the river flows through. But member countries have not taken these seriously.
China never joined the MRC but a few months ago helped to launch the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMCM), which is intended (among other things) to help coordinate the use of water resources along the river. LMCM includes China, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam. China call the Mekong “Lancang” River.
“The LMC concept symbolizes China’s shrewd effort to establish its own rules and institutions,” argues Dr Thitinan Pongsudhirak, Director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University in a commentary on Nikkei Asian Review. He points out that its inaugural meeting is just a week away.
He sees China’s release of water in March as indicative of the future geopolitical tensions between China and its southern Mekong neighbours, with dissent by governments likely to be silenced because China pulls the purse-strings in the region.
“Having unilaterally accumulated political power by exploiting geography and manipulating natural waterways through the construction of a slew of upriver dams, China appears intent to set the regional water management rules as it deems fit” says Dr Pongsudhirak. “China is essentially the giant neighbor ensconced at the river mouth. It can block the Mekong waterways at will.”
The only way to protect the livelihoods of more than 60 million people downstream, particularly in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, is for the people to rise up.
“China certainly owns the dams it builds but the water that goes into those dams is not just China’s. It comes from the Himalayan mountain ranges and belongs to all who have depended on it – for centuries,” argues Dr Pongsudhirak. “China’s dam power may yet be damned if its smaller neighbours gang up against it.”
Meanwhile, at the inaugural LMCM meeting on March 23, China announced that it would offer billions of yuans in preferential loans to the 5 Mekong region member countries. The Sanya Declaration – named after the Chinese seaside resort where the meeting was held – contains 26 points ranging from cooperation to fight security threats in the region to enhancing transport connectivity.
*The author is a Sri Lanka born journalist and academic, teaching regional communication issues at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.
This article is the fifth in a series of joint productions of Lotus News Features and IDN-InDepthNews, flagship of the International Press Syndicate.