Chinese dams undermine relations on the Mekong
A dry riparian area of the Mekong River in Pak Chom district, northeastern Loei province. China was pressed in June last year to share data on water levels all year round. AFP
The new Chinese ambassador to Thailand, Han Zhiqiang, compares the relations between the two countries and their collective effort to fight the Covid-19 pandemic as being “one family”.
The ambassador insists he is not exaggerating and says his feelings resonate with what is happening on the ground. He said the Thais and the Chinese have a good relationship, citing a phrase that strengthens the affinities between the two countries: “The Chinese and the Thais are not foreigners; both are descendants of the brotherhood.
Even so, bilateral ties and 46 years of diplomatic ties will not be tested solely by aid during the Covid-19 pandemic and diplomatic ties. In the years to come, the management of the water resources of the Mekong will be the proof of the kinship of the two nations.
China has developed a series of hydroelectric dams on the Lancang Jiang, which is the upper reaches of the Mekong in Chinese territory. The mighty transnational river that once flowed freely, jumping from the original Tibetan plateau and then flowing into the southern part of Vietnam, has now been fragmented, sliced into segments, by a cascade of hydroelectric dams, 11 of which are in China and one few of them are already built in Laos.
The “big brother” hack of the Mekong has raised questions among critics from downstream countries and the international community. Villagers along the Mekong, like those in Chiang Rai province, lamented the sudden change in the flow of the Mekong – something that affects their fishing and agriculture, not to mention the flooding that ravages the community.
Such drastic and unpredictable changes in the flow and volume of water have been observed since 1993, when the first in the series of dams, the Manwan Dam, began to operate. The total combined volume of water stored in these dams is not less than 41,700 million cubic meters, which means that a gigantic amount of water has been extracted from the ecology of the river.
The severe change has been observed since 2007 in at least two aspects: fluctuating water levels in the Mekong River throughout the year and unnatural ups and downs in the Mekong water flow, permanently disrupting its natural cycle.
The fluctuation of water levels in the Mekong River is evident throughout the winter and dry seasons. For example, from December 13 to 17, 2013, the Jinghong Dam – another Chinese dam – abruptly spilled water. The water level in the Mekong River suddenly rose 3m in the Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai.
And from 2014-2019, the Jinghong Dam rocked the seasonal change of the Mekong by alternating the release of large volumes of water at different speeds throughout the first quarter of the year. And from 2018-2021, the Jinghong dam reduced its discharges for “maintenance and service of power generation systems and power grids”.
The change in the hydrological model of the Mekong River has had drastic effects on the migration of fish to tributaries for spawning. The ecology of the river is fascinating and unique.
The water level of the main course of its course is relatively lower than that of the tributaries. With the slight decrease and change in water flow in the mainstream of the river, the fish could not swim to spawn in the tributaries, which resulted in a decrease in fishing yield. Fish is a source of income, and in terms of health, serves as a source of protein for 60 million villagers downstream.
The existential threat is not limited only to the flow of water. The color of the Mekong River changed from reddish milk tea to a translucent color after upstream sediment was trapped by the dam reservoirs.
The Thai government is grappling with the existential crisis in the ecology of the river. Indeed, Don Pramudwinai, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, paid a visit in January 2020 to meet the Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi to consult him on the drought in the lower Mekong River.
China has agreed to increase its throughput by 150 cubic meters per second from January 24. But in practice, the operator of the Chinese dam before the promised deadline had already reduced the flow by 150 cubic meters per second.
China has used data and figures to claim that outflows from Chinese territory dumped into the lower Mekong River represent less than 13% of the entire river, and even claimed that the water discharged from Chinese dams helped alleviate drought and flooding downstream.
Thus, the new Chinese ambassador to Thailand will have the challenge of proving that the friendship of the countries remains strong. He cannot simply resort to diplomatic rhetoric. Of course, being nicknamed “younger brother” and “a family” will make the hearts of Thais shine. Yet the proof of brotherhood will be visible in the unhindered river.
TERRA Research and Campaign Director
Montree Chantawong is Director of Research and Campaign for Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA).