US-Backed Mekong Dam Monitor Project Offers Data and Transparency to Mekong Region

Data could be used to hold China accountable for impact of 11 upstream dams.
US-Backed Mekong Dam Monitor Project Offers Data and Transparency to Mekong Region The Jinghong dam on the Mekong River in China's Yunnan province, in an undated photo.

The United States and partners have launched a new program to monitor the Mekong River, to track the impact of Chinese and other hydropower projects and climate change on Southeast Asia’s main river system.

The U.S.-funded Mekong Dam Monitor, developed by the Washington-based Stimson Center and the research firm Eyes on Earth, employs remote sensing to deliver near-real time data from dam operations and water levels across six Mekong basin countries: China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

“The Mekong Dam Monitor platform lifts the veil on dam operations and water levels on the Mekong in a way that’s never been possible before,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia Program and project’s co-lead.

Hosted on the website of the U.S. State Department’s Mekong Water Data Initiative, the monitor gathers data from many sources into one place.

“In turn, we hope that transparency will increase accountability, empower countries most affected by dams, and ultimately help protect both the river and the people who depend on it,” Eyler said.

The project uses remote sensing and data from satellites to keep tabs on water levels in Mekong River Dams, including those in China, which have altered the natural flow of the river by withholding water from downstream countries.

China has been the target of criticism from the international community for its cascade of 11 mega-dams on the river. The lower Mekong basin experienced severe drought over the past year, with stretches of the river even drying up entirely. The dams in China are at least partly to blame.

In September, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo launched a new U.S.-Mekong Partnership to help strengthen water security for countries where China’s manipulation of the river has exacerbated droughts. Other U.S. officials have said upstream damming of the Mekong has been done without transparency and urged Beijing to share more information with the region.

Beijing, in response to concerns from the downstream countries, has agreed to share hydrological data. It recently launched its own online data sharing website under the slogan “Shared River, Shared Future”

While the data from the new dam monitor will empower downstream countries to cross-check data officially released by China, the focus of the project is not to point fingers only at Beijing, Eyler said during the project’s launch Tuesday.

“It would be kind of irrational just to focus on Chinese dams. We have 27 dams that we are monitoring throughout the basin and there are more dams in the lower basin that we're monitoring, than the Chinese upstream dams. And together again you get a picture of the cumulative impacts of those dams now,” Eyler said.

The dam monitor, with access to 29 years of data, will also help scientists understand how climate change has affected the region.

“We can look at the trends for natural flow and see if there is indeed more water in the system or less water in the system, and we can determine how that water would naturally move through the system under an altered climate,” Alan Basist, President of Eyes on Earth and the project’s other co-leader, said during a press briefing.

“Clearly we can monitor that the natural rhythm of the river and how that's changing, and then superimposed on top of that is what's being done to impact that natural flow,” Basist said.

In a statement Wednesday, the U.S. State Department said the new Mekong Dam Monitor is “a significant step toward improving understanding of the water conditions in the Mekong River Basin.”

“Countries cannot effectively manage what they cannot measure, and for too long the people of the Mekong have lacked a transparent accounting of the basin’s water resources… This publicly available tool will significantly expand the water data available in the region, putting information into the hands of the people who need it the most so they can make informed decisions impacting livelihoods and regional security” the statement said.  


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