The Mekong, one of the world’s major rivers, starting in Tibet and flowing through south China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, provides sustenance through irrigation and fishing to those living in its basin. But it also provides hydroelectric power through dams, three of which were built in China and with more planned.
And it is precisely these dams that are now threatening the water supply, the livelihood of those living downstream, and the relations between China and its southern neighbors, according to Michael Richardson, senior research fellow of the Institute of South East Asian Studies.
A fourth Chinese dam, Xiaowan, that should generate 4,200 megawatts of power, could affect the level of fish stocks in Cambodia and water supply for Vietnam’s rice fields. But China contends controlling the water flow will prevent the adverse effects of erosion caused by the Mekong’s flooding cycle and will supply renewable energy. Winning the debate or coming to a workable compromise is further complicated by China’s refusal to join the Mekong River Commission, an inter-government agency whose members include the four of the downstream countries.
And though the global financial crisis has put on hold other dams being planned by the downstream countries, China is moving ahead with its plans. For now, there is time to assess how China’s dams may affect the other regions. But as this story shows, exploiting the natural resources that cross borders on a fair and equitable basis requires not only inter-government coordination, but also a knack for expecting the unexpected. – YaleGlobal
The sheer scale of China’s engineering to harness the power of the Mekong and change its natural flow is setting off alarm bells, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, the four countries of the lower Mekong basin where more than 60 million people depend on the river for food, water and transportation.
A report in May by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) warned that China’s plan for a cascade of eight dams on the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang Jiang, might pose “a considerable threat” to the river and its natural riches. In June, Thailand’s prime minister was handed a petition calling for a halt to dam building. It was signed by over 11,000 people, many of them subsistence farmers and fishermen who live along the river’s mainstream and its many tributaries.