Water Wars Feared Over Mekong

China's dam-building spree on the upper Mekong River raises new tensions over water resources.
An analysis by Parameswaran Ponnudurai
A floating market in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, Aug. 13, 2012.

Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang obviously had China in mind when he warned recently that tensions over water resources are not only threatening economic growth but presenting a source of conflict.

A day before he issued the warning to business leaders on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Russia, China had announced that its largest dam on the upper reaches of the Mekong River, Southeast Asia's key artery, has started generating electricity.

The Nuozhadu dam joins four other Chinese dams that have been commissioned on the Mekong river's upper portion, causing rapid changes in water levels and other adverse effects downstream, especially in the four countries of the Lower Mekong Basin—Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos—where tens of millions of people depend on the river for food, water, and transportation.

The launching of the first power generating unit of the Nuozhadu dam, which at 261.5 meters (858 feet) is the highest in Asia, was reported exclusively by China's state news agency Xinhua with little coverage by the world media.

Interestingly, Xinhua said in passing that the dam is one of seven—instead of eight as widely reported previously—hydropower projects planned on the Mekong River inside China.

"China's Mekong dams are so remote they receive little coverage in the Western media," notes Milton Osborne, a Southeast Asian expert at the Lowy Institute, an international policy think tank in Sydney, Australia.

"Yet, like the more readily viewed sites for proposed dams in Laos and Cambodia, what is happening in China will eventually alter the productive capabilities of mainland Southeast Asia's longest and most important river, a river vital to the sustenance of the 60 million people of the Lower Mekong Basin," he said.

The announcement of the Nuozhadu dam's operations is significant because it repeats Beijing's claim that the Chinese cascade of dams will not affect downstream countries, saying only 13.5 percent of the water in the Mekong as a whole flows through China, according to Osborne.

But this claim, he said, has been discredited many times over.

He believes water from China is of great importance in sustaining dry-season flow for the downstream countries, perhaps to a total of 40 percent of the river's volume overall.

"So with each dam China builds there is the prospect of a greater diminishing of the flow, particularly as both Xiaowan (another of the five Chinese dams in operation) and Nuozhadu will act as storage dams rather than having a 'run of the river' character," he said.

"There is no doubt," he said, that the commissioning of the five dams "will have other long-term effects downstream," including impacting the amount of nutrient-rich sediment flowing down the river.

'Source of conflict'

Energy-starved China is using electricity generated by the dams to fuel its rapid economic growth without regard to the adverse impact on its neighbors, the Vietnamese leader Sang suggested, without pointing the finger at Beijing.

"We cannot deny the fact that tensions over water resources are threatening economic growth in many countries and representing a source of conflict, especially at a time when countries are accelerating their economic development," Sang said.

"Dam construction and stream adjustments by some countries in upstream rivers constitute a growing concern for many countries and implicitly impinge on relations between relevant countries."

Sang said the management and utilization of water resources in the Mekong River are developing into a "pressing issue with direct and unfavorable bearing" on Vietnam, especially on rice production.

Water resources in the country, including river and underground water, "are seriously declining, while floods, sea level rises, high tides, coastal erosion… have been exacerbated," he lamented.

Vietnam, the world's second-largest rice exporter, is situated in the lowest part of the Mekong basin.

China's dams, combined with the construction by Laos of the Xayaburi dam, the first of 11 proposed dams on the main stream of the Lower Mekong River, will have a major impact on the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, experts say.

Some 18 million people live in the delta, where nearly half of Vietnam's rice crop comes from and which is already vulnerable to sea level rise.

In addition, for the first time in several thousands years, the delta is shrinking, studies indicate.

The global conservation group World Wildlife Fund is on the verge of finding out the causes of this radical shift.

"We're just completing a study that looks at the root causes of why, after five thousand years of the Delta expanding in size, we now see it retreating," Carter Roberts, President and CEO at World Wildlife Fund, told a meeting on the Mekong in July.

"The key is to understand the implications of basin management and to make smart choices based on a thorough understanding of the region," he said.

China's territorial claim to the South China Sea includes two disputed island chains.
China's territorial claim to the South China Sea includes two disputed island chains.

South China Sea

Aside from the Mekong concerns, Vietnam is also facing a threat from China over their overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea, which experts say is Asia's biggest potential military flashpoint.

China has in the past detained Vietnamese fishermen in disputed waters. The state Chinese oil company has also opened nine oil and gas lots for international bidders in areas that overlap existing Vietnamese exploration blocks.

"Only Vietnam sees itself as facing a two front-threat from China's fast growing ability to regulate the flow of the Mekong River through the construction of massive upstream dams and increasing pressure in the South China Sea," said Richard Cronin, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.

Still, no aspect of China's fast-growing role and influence in the Mekong region is more evident and more problematic than its drive to harness the huge hydroelectric potential of the Upper Mekong, he said.

The past four completed Chinese dams "already have caused rapid changes in water levels hundreds of kilometers downstream and notably reduced the flow of vital nutrient-rich sediment that gives the river its immense aquatic and agricultural productivity and sustains the Mekong Delta," Cronin said.


Cambodia, Southeast Asia's key China ally, is also not spared by China's dam-building spree on the Mekong.

Cambodia's Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia's largest freshwater lake which has a close connection with the Mekong River,  could also shrink in size, experts say.

"There is also the likelihood that Cambodia's Great Lake will be reduced in area during the wet season, to the detriment of its current vital role as a source of much of Cambodia's protein consumption through its vast bounty of fish," Osborne of the Lowy Institute said.

The Cambodian Fishery Coalition, a community-based organization set up by fishery folk in the country, said in a recent report that the Chinese dams on the Mekong "have impacted the lake’s fish sanctuary."

"When the hydropower dams were established, the community people living around the Tonle Sap Lake were severely affected, as they have transformed fish resources, and lead to progressive loss."

Aside from fishery resources, the Tonle Sap Lake provides land fertile for the cultivation of rice and other agricultural plants.

Regional stability

Cronin said increased competition for access to the rich resources of the once war-torn Mekong region has not only created serious environmental degradation but also affected regional stability.

But while the adverse effects of Chinese dams have "created friction" with its downstream neighbors, their governments "have been loath to complain," Cronin said.

China is a huge market for the natural resources and agricultural exports. Laos and Cambodia particularly are major recipients of Chinese infrastructure development aid.

An almost complete lack of transparency makes it difficult to establish with certainty how China  operates its dams.

But Cronin said that several times during the past several years, Beijing has been accused of withholding water—except for short releases timed to allow its boats to operate—during periods of severe drought in Yunnan province where the dams are located.

"China’s disregard for its neighbors’ interests has generated a growing store of ill will in downstream countries, which will make it difficult for Beijing to achieve its longer-term goals of securing the Mekong and its own influence over it," he said.


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