New research shows that in 2019, Chinese dams on the Mekong River trapped nearly all of the river’s flow, causing the record-breaking drought that still plagues the region. The new findings confirm what natural resource advocates have said for years: that local experts and communities must have control over their water.
By Skylar Lindsay
“No fish. Nothing. We can only catch enough to eat ourselves. We fish through the night and all we catch is one or two skewers for cooking,” a Lao fisherman told Radio Free Asia earlier this year. He spoke to journalists on his boat on the Mekong River during the record-breaking drought that has rocked the region for months.
Local communities on the Mekong have objected to the negative impacts of hydropower dams for years and many voiced concerns that dams played a role in the recent drought. Last week, a new study confirmed their suspicions, showing that the 11 Chinese dams on the upper portion of the Mekong trapped almost all of the river’s flow in 2019 and prevented it from reaching communities and ecosystems downstream in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos.
The drought, which will continue until the region’s monsoons begin next month, has threatened the food supplies and livelihoods of the 70 million people who rely on the river. “The lay people who depend on the resources of the Mekong River for their livelihoods and income are automatically excluded,” said Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer at Thailand’s Mahasarakham University.
The new study confirms what environmental experts and civil society groups have been saying for decades: unless local communities have control over their natural resources, states will exploit these resources to push their political and development agendas, no matter the cost to people’s food supplies and livelihoods.
China denounced the findings, claiming to be committed to cooperation
China has rejected the new study, saying the upper portion of the Mekong also saw record low water levels in 2019. “The explanation that China’s dam building on the Lancang River is causing downstream droughts is unreasonable,” said the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement to Reuters, using the Chinese name for the river.
In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi blamed the drought on a lack of rainfall. Soon after, a Chinese diplomat claimed that China had responded to the drought by releasing water from dams on its portion of the river in January.
When China did release water last year, they did not communicate with downstream governments and the surges destroyed crops planted along the riverbanks. “The water release by China is political. It’s made out to be them doing a favor. They create damage, but they ask for gratitude,” said Chainarong Setthachua.
There are no formal water governance treaties between China and the Lower Mekong countries. Beijing has committed to investigating the causes of last year’s drought but has historically refused to share information on the climate and hydrology of its portion of the Mekong.
“The problem is that the Chinese elite see water as something for their use, not as a shared commodity,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program.
New study backs up dam critics claims
The new study, conducted by water research firm Eyes on Earth with funding by the US State Department’s Lower Mekong Initiative, uses 28 years of satellite data to show that the portion of the river basin in China’s Yunnan Province actually saw above average snowmelt and rainfall in 2019. Over the same period, water levels downstream on the Mekong near the Thai-Lao border were as much as 3 metres below normal.
“The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress,” said Alan Basist, one of the study’s authors.
Since 2012, China has added an additional seven dams to its portion of the river. The study shows that since these dams came online, the amount of water reaching the Lower Mekong has decreased.
The new study also shows how dams on the lower portion of the Mekong could cause serious damage. Lower Mekong countries have also backed plans to develop the river for hydropower: Laos has embraced a development strategy to turn itself into the “battery of Southeast Asia”, with Thailand’s blessings, and until recently, Cambodia had similar plans.
New study shows drought was human-caused
The new findings show that the drought that has shaken Mekong communities over the past year was entirely preventable. In 2019, the Lower Mekong was at its lowest in more than 50 years despite more than adequate flows on the upper Lancang.
Cambodia’s Tonle Sap lake, the largest freshwater fishery in the world, reached a record low and began to fill with water two months later than normal. The change pulled the rug out from under the US$2 billion local fishing industry, threatening the food security of millions of people in the region as fishers reported catches 80-90% below normal.
According to estimates in the new study, the reservoirs for China’s 11 dams have a combined capacity of more than 47 billion cubic metres. That’s over half the volume of the Tonle Sap when it reaches its peak size during the rainy season. The upper portion of the Mekong river basin as a whole provides as much as 70% of the river’s flow.
The new Eyes on Earth study shows that Chinese dams deprived Lower Mekong communities of a year’s income. According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), annual flooding of the Lower Mekong contributes US$8-10 billion to local economies across the region. When that water doesn’t come, neither does the income.
China has introduced a new era of water politics
Governments and residents downriver of China’s dams are now adjusting to the reality that those dams can spark a drought for the entire region, without their knowledge.
“Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast,” Basist said. “The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”
“China can regulate this river’s flow through dams, and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing,” he added.
This has already become the US foreign policy line. Last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on a visit to Bangkok that the drought in the region was driven by “China’s decision to shut off water upstream.”
“We see a push to craft new Beijing-directed rules to govern the river, thereby weakening the Mekong River Commission,” he added.
Regardless of the impact on relations between states, the new findings show that the Lower Mekong’s governments must work with China to ensure that local communities have control over their water.
Advocates for this type of natural resource policy have already pointed to the new Eyes on Earth study as evidence of their claims.
“There needs to be long-term change in dam operations to prioritize the ecosystem services vital to the livelihoods of downstream communities,” said Hok Menghoin of the NGO Forum on Cambodia.
Natural resource policy—whether on the Mekong or elsewhere—must prioritize the voices of the people who have the most expertise and are most affected by how resources are managed. It was the people living along the Mekong—fishers and farmers—who knew first when the drought hit, and it’s these local experts who know best how to prevent it from happening again.