A massive release of reservoir water into the river on short notice is hardly the act of a good neighbour
The Mekong rose dramatically yesterday (Wednesday) when China discharged a huge amount of water into Southeast Asia’s longest river. Chinese authorities made sure to give downstream countries advance notice – but it was only one day’s notice, too little time to adequately prepare.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an international regulating agency, announced on Monday it had received “emergency notification” from China, a dialogue partner to the MRC, that water would be
discharged from the Jinghong Reservoir in a bid to ensure
power-grid security. The discharge began at 504 cubic metres per second on Tuesday, gradually increasing to 2,200m3/s yesterday, according to the MRC.
The agency established in 1995 is the only inter-governmental organisation representing the four lower Mekong nations – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. China is not a member, but has since 2002 been obliged to issue advance notifications of such operations by the terms of its “enhanced partnership” with the MRC, along with the exchange of hydrological data.
China and Myanmar have, however, resisted pressure to become full members of the MRC. Their elevated role would better enable the agency to regulate water use along the Mekong’s entire 4,800-kilometre length. Chinese territory abuts only 16 per cent of the riverbank, and yet it has greatly affected the river’s flow by building seven hydroelectric dams on the main stream. It plans to build a dozen more dams, further harnessing a river whose upper reaches meet 45 per cent of China’s water needs in the dry season.
This has led to understandable fury in downstream nations. Fluctuations due to China’s
withholding and release of water harm livelihoods and the environment. Extreme changes in the water level affect agriculture, aquaculture, transportation and tourism in the lower basin, and severe impacts from upstream abuses are already being felt in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. That country’s south is getting insufficient freshwater to stave off salinity intruding from the sea,
ruining cropland and fish farms. Upstream dams block fish migration and the flow of the sediments that serve as natural fertilisers in the delta and shield against erosion.
The dry season has begun in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, when the annual lowering of the river level opens riverbanks to agricultural use. Millions of people grow vegetables in the mineral-rich soil and will lose a crucial source of income if their access is restricted. China is tampering with livelihoods. Discharging 2,000 cubic metres per second from a dam will shrink the riverside farm plots.
With its tardy advance notification, Beijing appears to be doing the least it can to be a good neighbour on the Mekong. It would be far better if China became a full participant in MRC deliberations and found a way to cooperate equitably with the other riparian states. The 1995 Mekong Agreement gave the MRC mechanisms to oversee water use, but not the muscle to enforce regulations, certainly not if powerful nations like China, which controls a significant portion of the river, remain beyond its reach.
The Mekong is an international river. Some portions are part of the sovereign territory of individual countries, but realistically the river belongs to everyone. Its abuse by one nation will hurt others. It’s time China thought regionally and stopped acting nationally.