The Mekong’s normal flow can be restored if large volumes of water are consistently and reliably released from Chinese dam reservoirs. However, China’s water policy shows Beijing is unlikely to change its behavior and the worst for the Mekong is yet to come.
By Umair Jamal
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has said that water levels in the Mekong have fallen to a “worrying level”, mainly due to outflow restrictions from China’s upstream dams.
“There have been sudden rises and falls in water levels immediately downstream of Jinghong [dam] and further down to Vientiane,” said Winai Wongpimool, director of the MRC Secretariat’s Technical Support Division. The MRC is an intergovernmental body formed by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Over the past year, it has ramped up efforts to promote hydrological data sharing.
Data shows that China intentionally restricted the flow of the Mekong during the 2019-20 monsoon season, leading to droughts in countries on the lower Mekong and damaging the livelihoods of millions who depend on the river.
China’s building of dams on the Mekong River is likely to reshape the economy of every country along the waterway.
China says the MRC’s claims are inaccurate
In response to the MRC’s findings published in early February, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that there are many causes of downstream drought and China cannot be blamed for low water levels.
China took a similar stance in response to allegations about its role in last year’s drought. In February 2020, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told a meeting of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) grouping that “China has overcome its own difficulty and increased water outflow from the Lancang River to help Mekong countries mitigate the drought.” The Lancang is the Chinese name for the Mekong.
“We also agreed to strengthen such cooperation within the framework of LMC to ensure the rational and sustainable use of water resources,” he said at the time. Beijing also promised to share its dam data with MRC member countries.
Last month, China notified MRC member countries that it would be filling its dam reservoirs until January 25. According to the MRC, water outflow levels at the Jinghong Dam in China’s Yunnan province were 785 cubic-meters per second in early January. The outflow increased to 1,400 cubic-meters per second in mid-January but in February, the water levels fell again and were reported at 800 cubic meters per second.
However, China claims that the dam’s outflow has not fallen below 1,000 cubic meters per second since late January. Beijing has asked that the MRC “avoid causing public misunderstanding”.
China takes a hard stance on Mekong water governance
Unlike the lower Mekong countries, China is not dependent on others to maintain water levels on its portion of the river. China has been reluctant to follow multilateral water governance treaties and has not signed international treaties for a majority of its transboundary rivers. It is also one of the few countries that have not signed on to the 1997 UN Convention on the law of Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses. As the situation on the Mekong has become a crisis, China is neither legally bound to nor has any incentive to respect the needs of Southeast Asian countries.
Studies show that China is holding back much more water than it has in the past and may have intentionally caused droughts by restricting water flows. For instance, data shows that between 1992 and 2019, China’s Mekong dams withheld several times more water than they released. A Stimson Center report on from February 2020 noted that “Chinese policy makers consider water a sovereign resource rather than a shared resource, an approach which has significant influence on countries downstream.”
“Stimson’s researchers have often heard Chinese stakeholders repeat a worrying position: Not one drop of China’s water should be shared without China using it first or without making those downstream pay for it,” the report noted.
Despite recent attempts at improved communication, China and Southeast Asian countries have yet to find a solution to the crisis. Lower Mekong countries still struggle with inadequate data on outflow of water from China’s reservoirs, making it difficult to find out whether changes in river flows are manufactured or natural.
Lower Mekong countries are adding to the problem
China is not the only cause of the water shortages on the Mekong river. Last year, Laos opened two dams on the mainstream of the Mekong and has begun building a third dam near the city of Luang Prabang, one of a number of dams slated for construction over the next decade. The construction is likely to accelerate water security disputes along the Mekong.
A report by the Fitch Solutions Macro Research, an economic research center, has warned that dam building along the Mekong river will have profound economic implications in the coming decade. “This puts these countries at further risk of elevated inﬂation due to higher foreign food prices in times of shortage, and currency depreciation over the long term due to likely higher structural inflation vis-à-vis their trading partners,” the report said.
“This could see these economies increasingly rely on China for essential food imports to make up the shortfall over the long term, making these countries even more vulnerable to Chinese influence,” the report added.
The governments of lower Mekong countries have proposed 11 dams for the river’s mainstream, along with more than 300 more across the river basin. A survey by the Mekong River commission has estimated that countries on the lower Mekong will see US$7 billion in losses if the planned hydropower projects are implemented.
Analysts worry that the countries building these dams can’t afford their true costs. “Are these dams for the good of the Mekong downstream countries, or are they for the good of a country like China that’s trying to gain economic influence and offload excess capacity?” asked Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia program director at International Rivers, an environmental watchdog group.
Local communities along the Mekong are already mourning the loss of a river that sustained and fed them for generations. “Our river was like a god to us,” said In Chin, a resident of a Cambodian village flooded by dam construction, in an interview with the New York Times last year. “It makes me sad that we killed it.”