China's Water Release Unlikely to Slake Vietnam's Thirst

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The Jinghong dam on the Mekong River in China's Yunnan province, in an undated photo.
The Jinghong dam on the Mekong River in China's Yunnan province, in an undated photo.

China’s decision to release millions of gallons of water sequestered behind its massive Jinghong Dam will do little to ease the looming crises facing Vietnam as most of the water will be sucked up before it reaches the Mekong River Delta, scientists and farmers tell RFA’s Vietnamese Service.

China released 2.3 billion cubic meters of water from Jinghong power station in Yunnan province eight days ago, but little change has been noticed in the level of the Mekong downstream, Duong Van Ni, a professor at Can Tho University told RFA.

“Water released from the dam has a very limited effect on the water level in Vietnam, let alone in helping to ease the drought,” he said.

Southeast Asia is suffering from one of the severest droughts in history. It’s a dry-spell that is especially hard on Vietnam where the Mekong River Delta forms the nation’s “rice bowl.”

The Mekong River has been under stress for quite some time as many countries in Asia see the 2,700-mile-long river as a road to industrialization. Countries that lie along the Mekong have built dozens of dams along the river, which is called the Lancang River in China, where it originates.

By 2020 Beijing wants to produce 282 gigawatts of hydroelectric power, and Laos wants electricity to become its major source of revenue by 2025. Laos, the next country down river from China, has ambitious dam-building plans of its own.

Damming the river may produce power, but it changes the water flow and has an impact on agricultural production downstream, and particularly in countries like Vietnam that lie near the Mekong’s mouth. Dams block sediment that normally flows into the delta, causing it to shrink.

Environmental double whammy

Add in the effects of climate change which is causing sea levels to rise, and the Mekong gets hit with an environmental double whammy.

Low water levels cause a multitude of problems, and in the Mekong Delta salt intrusion is one of the worst. Salt water from the ocean pushes in as the level of fresh water drops.

About 40 percent of the Cuu Long area suffers from saline intrusion, with eight of the 12 provinces in the Cuu Long Delta reporting saline intrusion, according to the government. The Mekong is called the Cuu Long in Vietnam.

While China’s decision to release more water for the Mekong was much ballyhooed, it fails to take into account the unique nature of the river, Tho said.

“At the beginning of the rainy season, rain and melting ice only dampens dry soil, and it fills up the upper river area with just very little water flowing down here,” he explained.

“Also in rainy season, water always goes into the Tonle Sap in Cambodia before going to our basin,” he said. “So even when China releases water from the dam it is almost impossible to reach the yearly water level down here.”

In a separate analysis, Le Anh Tuan, vice director of Can Tho University’s Research Institute for Climate Change, said all the water behind the Jinghong would hardly make a drop in the bucket.

According to his analysis published in the Saigon Times online, the Jinghong reservoir would be empty after about 30 hours if China released all the water Vietnam is requesting.

4,000 kilometers of dry season

Nguyen Minh Nhi, who formerly was a central party committee member, chairman of An Giang Province and farmer in the region, said the release will do little.

“I don’t really care much about this released water because it will have to go through 4,000 kilometers and this season is a dry season,” he said. “China also suffers from the drought, and many countries along the river do not have enough water.”

His fears were realized as ABC Australia reported that Thailand was diverting water from the Mekong into other waterways.

Four temporary pumps have begun sucking 47 million cubic meters of water out of the Mekong River and into the Huai Luang River, in Thailand's Nong Khai province, and Thailand's National Water Resources Board has approved a much bigger pumping station for the area that could divert 150 cubic meters every second from the Mekong River, the news outlet reported.

Kien Giang Province is one of those hurt by the drought and saline intrusion, and farmers there worry over the consequences.

“The river water level is supposed to be higher than that of the sea every year, but this year I see the river water level is very low so the sea water comes in,” a farmer named Ba told RFA.

“I heard that China released some water from their dam but our soil has been salty, but I don’t know if we still can produce the next crop.”

Reported by Nam Nguyen for RFA's Vietnamese Service. Translated by Viet Ha. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.





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