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Mekong River Summit to tackle dam controversy

Mekong River Summit to tackle dam controversy

Leaders of four countries whose citizens depend on the Mekong River for their livelihoods get the chance Monday to confront China over claims that it is draining off their lifeblood with the building of large dams upstream.
They meet as the Mekong _ which provides food, transport and irrigation for 65 million people in six countries _ has dropped to its lowest level in nearly 20 years.
China and Myanmar will join the summit meeting of the Mekong River Commission, whose members are Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Chinese officials _ as well as the Mekong Commission's technical experts _ say the scientific evidence does not support environmentalists' allegation that the dams are the main cause of reduced downstream flow.
Blame Mother Nature, they say, or climate change. This year's low flow and consequent drought is attributed to an early end to the 2009 wet season and low rainfall during the monsoons.
Political considerations are also at work. As Asia's superpower, China wields considerable economic and political leverage over its southern neighbors.
The four Mekong commission nations plus Myanmar are themselves heavily invested in hydropower projects to meet great shortfalls of electricity and have little interest in examining their drawbacks too closely.
But all acknowledge that the water crisis is real, something signaled by the summit meeting itself, the first in the Mekong Commission's 15-year history. It was proposed three years ago.
"I think it is coming now because you are seeing more intensity in terms of the issues facing the (Mekong) basin, whether it's hydropower or flood or drought," says Jeremy Bird, head of the Mekong Commission's secretariat, which carries out research and coordination work.
"The topic is not specifically dam construction, the topic is on the wider issues of regional cooperation for the (Mekong) Basin," he said. "It covers many, many areas _ navigation, flood management, hydropower, irrigation, fisheries."
Symptoms of the crisis vary by area and intensity. Near where the borders of northern Thailand, Laos and China meet _ where most of the water does come from China _ the river's level is so low as to be navigable only by the smallest of boats.
Further downstream _ where a lesser proportion of the water originates from China _ drought, salt deposits and reduced soil nutrients poses the more alarming threat of disrupting food production in the "rice bowls" of Cambodia and Vietnam.
Another variable concerns the dam's state of construction. Operational dams are normally able to alleviate downstream shortages with the release of water during the dry season.
But filling mainstream dams is a water intensive and extended process.
China's massive Xiowan dam at 958 feet (292 meters) high will be the world's tallest. Its storage capacity is equal to all the Southeast Asia reservoirs combined. But there are concerns about the 10 years it is supposed to take to reach a level where it can start operating.
In an unusual diplomatic gesture of openness, China last month began releasing previously closely held information on dry season water flows in its sections of the Mekong, making it easier to forecast problems downstream.
It is sending 27-person delegation to the summit meeting, second in size only to host Thailand.
"We already have very good cooperation but want to make it more extensive and alleviate the current severe drought situation for whole basin area," says Yao Wen, a Chinese Embassy official in Bangkok who defended his county's policies at a seminar last week.
In the spirit of "we're all in this together," China has tried to focus attention on the woes it is facing from the drought.
The drought, which has left southwestern China suffering since last year, has affected about 61 million people and left more than 12 million acres (about 5 million hectares) barren in Guizhou, Yunnan, Sichuan, Chongqing and Guangxi, the official Xinhua News Agency cited the Ministry of Civil Affairs as saying.
For parts of Yunnan, it is the worst drought in a century, with about 5.4 million people facing water shortages, a provincial official said last month. Neighboring Guizhou province has been hit with its worst drought in 80 years, while in Guangxi it is the worst in 50 years, according to a report posted on the National Flood Control and Drought relief Web site.
Environmental activists have modest hopes for the summit, hoping mainly that it will raise public awareness.
"We have learned there are many questions about how the Mekong is drying up, how that is related to the dams in China, and so far I think the debate shows us that there a lack of information and good cooperation has led to the problem," says Witoon Permpongsacharoen of Thailand's Mekong Energy and Ecology Network.
"We hope that more public pressure or understanding might make them improve things, but to be fair I would say that the people are also learning about the impact of the mainstream dams more and more."


Updated : 2021-06-16 04:09 GMT+08:00