China’s prime minister assured five of its Mekong neighbors Monday that Beijing would share year-round data on water flows into the river, a pledge welcomed by the Southeast Asian countries that have received information during the rainy season only and are increasingly impacted by drought and upstream dams.
Prime Minister Li Keqiang told a virtual meeting of leaders from Mekong River countries that China had moved cooperation on the river to a “fast track.” His announcement followed a report earlier this month from four of the countries that called for increased sharing of information about dams along the waterway.
“We need to take our cooperation in water resources to a new high. The legitimate rights and interests of all countries in developing and utilizing their water resources as appropriate should be fully respected,” Li said according to the text of his speech posted by China’s state-run Xinhua news agency.
“China is ready to provide more help to the best of its ability for the Mekong countries to make better use of water resources. Starting from this year, China will share Lancang River’s hydrological data for the whole year,” the prime minister said, using the Chinese name for the river.
The Mekong, the world’s 12th-longest river, stretches through six nations before draining into the South China Sea. Its waters flow from China past Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, affecting more than 60 million people who depend on the river and its tributaries for food, transportation, and water.
Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-cha, who participated in Monday’s Third Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Leaders’ virtual meeting, praised the announcement.
“Premier Li’s remark reflects China’s genuine commitment to materialize the partnership with the lower Mekong countries,” Prayuth said.
“We are pleased that China has offered to systemically exchange information on full-year water management and the member countries are considering a mechanism to establish information exchanges on the matter,” he said during the meeting.
“Thailand supports China’s initiative and wishes to monitor and assess the water management scheme from upstream to downstream, which will leverage practical cooperation and is beneficial to the people along the Mekong in all countries.”
Meanwhile, the director of Thailand’s Office of Natural Water Resources said China was offering to share much more information than it has in the past.
“They normally share the data during rainy season (May to October), understandably for flood awareness due to rapid changes in tides,” Somkiat Prajamwong told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. “We never had full-year data and I don’t know how they will share it with us and when.”
Somkiat said China previously provided data every other day during the rainy season.
Failure to speak out
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, participating in the meeting, meanwhile failed to speak out over the harm caused to his country by the regulation of water flows by China and Laos on the upper Mekong, experts told RFA following the meeting.
"Hun Sen kept silent and dared not complain or publicly blame China or Laos," environmental activist and founder of the Mother Nature group Alejandro Gonzales-Davidson said. "And yet he has regularly warned and threatened his own Khmer compatriots, including union leaders and environmental and political activists."
"This is merely because he and his ruling Cambodian People's Party owe a huge debt to the Chinese government. This is a huge problem for Cambodia," he said.
China is unlikely to keep its promise to share data freely with downstream countries in any case, and would prefer to deal with each of these countries separately than as a regional group, said Witoon Permpongsacharoen, a researcher at the Bangkok-based Energy and Ecology Network.
"China has never recognized the Mekong River as an international waterway, but has always considered it a domestic one," he said. "Chinese authorities won't keep their promises to share info and data on the Mekong River."
Protocol still unclear
Officials have not established the protocol for China to share its data going forward through what is being called the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform.
“Details will be discussed among relevant ministers from the six countries,” Thai government spokesman Anucha Burapachaisri told Reuters news service.
Li’s announcement comes after the Mekong River Commission – Thailand Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – issued a report on Aug. 7 urging China and other nations to provide more data about their dams.
A series of 11 dams in China and two in Laos along with others in the Mekong’s tributaries, alter the river’s natural flow significantly, the report said.
In April, a U.S. study found that China had compounded the 2019 drought that devastated fishing and farming communities in other nations by restricting water flow from its dams.
Satellite measurements of “surface wetness” indicated that the Chinese dams in the Upper Mekong had “above-average” water levels when last year’s drought took place in Thailand and other countries downstream, Alan Basist, president of the research company Eyes on Earth Inc., told BenarNews at the time of the report’s release.
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, with additional reporting by RFA's Khmer and Vietnamese Services.