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China should honor pledge to share Mekong River data with neighbors: US

Chinese dams altering water level of world's 12th-largest river, impacting life in riparian nations downstream

Cambodian fisherman anchors wooden boat on Mekong River bank near Phnom Penh. 

Cambodian fisherman anchors wooden boat on Mekong River bank near Phnom Penh.  (AP photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Amid concerns over falling water levels along the Mekong River, which China has heavily dammed, the U.S. on Tuesday (Feb. 23) called on China to live up to its commitment to share water data with the affected Southeast Asian nations downstream.

Considered by most to be the world's 12th-longest river, the Mekong, or Lancang, as it is known in China, flows down from the Tibetan Plateau and winds 4,350 kilometers through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

To accommodate its rapid growth, China has since the 1990s constructed 11 large dams along the portion of the Mekong within its borders, at times dramatically altering the flow of the river.

This contributed to a crisis downstream in 2019, when despite unusually high levels of precipitation in the river's upper reaches between April and November of that year, China restricted this water from reaching the lower Mekong during the wet season. Combined with the El Niño effect and later-than-average monsoon rains, this led to the worst drought in Southeast Asia in over a century, according to a study based on Mekong River Commission (MRC) data.

The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok disputed these findings, arguing the authors had not accounted for "precipitation levels and complication of water flows." Meanwhile, the director of U.S. think tank The Stimson Center's Southeast Asia program, Brian Eyler, said the Jinghong Dam had released little to no water because "the needs of that dam are prioritized over the needs of everyone downstream."

In August of last year, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) met with the leaders of the other five Mekong countries in the third leaders' meeting of the Mekong-Lancang Cooperation framework. In the meeting, Li said China would start sharing hydrological information it gathers on the transnational waterway on a yearly basis, with an eye toward mitigating the impact of climate change, flooding, and droughts.

China is "willing to offer more assistance within its capacity to other Lancang-Mekong countries for better utilizing water resources," Thai PBS World quoted him as saying.

On Feb. 12, the MRC announced that the water levels at the world's 12th longest river were worryingly low between the Jinghong Dam in China's Yunnan Province and the river delta in Vietnam. It attributed the drop to upstream "outflow restrictions" from the dam near Jinghong in addition to reduced rainfall, flow changes, and hydropower activity in tributaries.

The MRC quoted Dr. Winai Wangpimool, director of its Secratariat's Technical Support Division, as stating, "There have been sudden rises and falls in water levels immediately downstream of Jinghong and further down to Vientiane, [Laos,] which has been challenging for authorities and communities to prepare for and respond to possible impacts." According to the commission's observations, the Jinghong dam's outflow on Feb. 11 was 775 cubic meters per second, down nearly 50 percent from the "normal level" of 1,400 m³/s seen in December.

Outflow levels then reportedly stabilized at 785 m³/s from Jan. 1-7 before nearly doubling on Jan. 15 — raising the water level by 1.07 m — then rising to 990 m³/s and gradually falling again over the next couple weeks.

Winai said the erratic pattern could impact fish migration, agriculture, and river transport among other activities, and the scientist urged China and the other riparian stakeholders to divulge their water release schemes to the MRC.

The commission also observed that the stretch of the river in the Thai province of Nakhon Phanom has recently exhibited an "aquamarine" hue due to the lower flows and associated decrease in fine sediments. The clearer water and resulting expansion of algae in the riverbed could adversely affect the food chain and, in turn, catches of fish, "threatening the livelihoods of local communities," warned Dr. So Nam, the MRC Secretariat's chief environment management officer.

In a press statement released Tuesday, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said the U.S. endorses transparent and accountable management of transboundary resources, including the Mekong.

Noting that almost 70 million people earn their living from the river, Price stated: "We share the concerns of the Mekong region governments and the Mekong River Commission about the recent rapid fluctuations and worrying drop in Mekong River water levels." The U.S. stands with these countries to call upon China to fulfill its promise to share crucial information related to the river, such as data about the dams it operates upstream, in a timely fashion, Price said.

The U.S. also pledged to continue supporting "governments and local communities" along the lower Mekong under the Mekong-U.S. Partnership established last year, including through mechanisms like the Mekong Water Date Initiative, which the State Department launched in 2017 to enhance the capacity of Mekong countries to collect, analyze, and manage water and related data.