Water release from Chinese dam causes Mekong River to rise downstream

Lao and Thai authorities say operators did not notify them about the water release from the Jinghong Dam.
Fisherman Kome Wilai fishes from his boat along the Mekong River between Chiang Rai province in Thailand (R) and Laos (L), Sept. 20, 2019.

Residents in Laos said they were surprised to find water on the Mekong River rising this week due to unannounced releases from the Jinghong Dam upriver in China, although there were no reports of significant damage.

The Mekong in parts of Laos rose more than 30 centimeters (0.98 feet), according to a notice issued Wednesday by water authorities in Thailand. Water levels rose higher in Thailand, to between 70 and 80 centimeters in Chiang Khan district in Loei province and Chiang Saen district of Chiang Rai province, Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources said.

Officials in Laos and in Thailand said they were not notified of the release from the dam in in southwestern China’s Yunnan province.

China has 11 massive dams, including two large storage dams, along the mainstream of the Upper Mekong Basin, known as the Lancang in China. Laos has two hydropower dams in operation on the Mekong mainstream and dozens more on its tributaries as part of the government’s aim to bring in revenue by exporting electricity to the country’s richer neighbors.

A Lao fisherman who lives in Tonpheung district said he noticed higher water on Wednesday.

“At 10 a.m. on April 20, the Mekong River water level in front of Tonpheung district was about 30 centimeters higher than it was the day before, and it is expected to be higher today and tomorrow,” he said. “So far, we haven’t been affected yet. We’ve already secured our boats by tying them up to the stakes on the riverbank.”

The dam near Jinghong includes a 1,750-megawatt hydroelectric power station, and water is sometimes released to generate more electricity. But sudden releases of water can pose a threat to communities downstream.

The Office of National Water Resources said that the Mekong’s water flow rose to 1,626 cubic meters per second, from 970 cubic meters per second, following the release at Jinghong.

Thai water authorities and the Mekong Dam Monitor, which tracks water levels in the river, expect levels to increase between 80 centimeters and 160 centimeters, or 1.6 meters, on Thursday and Friday.

Lao officials received no notice about the increased water discharge from China, an official at the Natural Resources and Environment Department of northern Laos’ Bokeo province said.

“Usually there must be some kind of a notice or a letter informing us of the discharges so that we can issue a warning to our residents,” said the official, who like other sources in this report requested anonymity for safety reasons and to speak freely.

An estimated 80% of the nearly 65 million people who live in the Lower Mekong River Basin depend on the river for their livelihoods, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization representing Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam that manages the shared water resource.

Agriculture and fisheries production in the Lower Mekong River Basin can be harmed by either higher or lower levels of water discharge from China.

A resident of Bokeo’s Tonpheung district, which sits along the Mekong River, told RFA that locals heard about the upstream water release from the crew of a Chinese cargo ship.

“Oh, the water level is now inching up,” he said.

An MRC member told RFA that it also did not receive any notice or warning from the Chinese about the dam discharge.

A member of the Hak (Love) Chiang Khong Group, a Thai nonprofit environmental campaign in Chiang Rai, told RFA that the Jinghong Dam has discharged more water nine times since the beginning of the year, including twice in April.

“We believe that the dam will release more water whenever it wants to produce more electricity or to raise the Mekong River’s water level so that Chinese cargo boats can navigate down to Laos and Thailand,” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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