The QANAT: April 5 to 11

“Statistics show that the recent drought that hit the whole river basin is attributable to the extreme dry weather, and the water level decline of the Mekong River has nothing to do with the hydropower development,” China dismisses Mekong dam criticism at regional meeting, Bangkok Post, April 5
“…the cooperation has already been good, while we expect further development and cooperation with four member countries and dialogue partners.” 1st Mekong River Commission Summit held in Thailand, China Daily, April 5
“Chinese officials … said last week that China’s dams are not responsible for the Mekong River’s falling water levels downstream, pointing instead to a region-wide drought …[and].. the MRC’s own analysis suggests that drought is the main culprit.”   Hun Sen attends summit, Phnom Penh Post,
April 5
“…The crisis has grounded cargo and tour boats on the so-called “mighty Mekong” and alarmed communities along what is the world’s largest inland fishery.”  Dam debate looms large over Mekong summit, AFP, April 3
“Authorities say the reservoirs impact fish habitats, jeopardising a resource that represents the Kingdom’s main source of protein.” Hun Sen orders destruction of reservoirs near Tonle Sap lake, The Phnom Penh Post, April 7
“Activists have recently claimed water shortages in northern Thailand and Lao PDR, are caused by Chinese dams on the mainstream of the Mekong. The MRC has said in earlier statements that there is no evidence to back up this claim, reiterating that current water shortages are due to the regional drought.” [PRESS RELEASE DOWNLOAD], MRC Summit, April 5

 

“The country may face a shortage of almost 1 billion kilowatt-hours as demand is expected to rise as much as 18 percent for the year, the government said.” Vietnam Face Power Shortage as Drought Hurts Hydroelectricity, Business Week, April 6
“Greenpeace China has built solar-powered water pumping stations for free in areas with power shortage to provide irrigation water for local peasants.” Solar power helps water supply, China Daily, April 7

 

“China condemns great power bullying of smaller countries, but a close look at China’s behavior in the Greater Mekong Sub-region indicates that it is Beijing (that is) acting like a hegemon,” Dams portend grim future for Mekong Delta: experts, Thanh Nien News, April 9
“Although some have been quick to blame this year’s drought on global warming, imperial records indicate that normally lush Shangri-La has, in fact, suffered severe droughts periodically throughout history (76 out of the 691 years from 1300 to 1991, to be precise).  Though rare or perhaps because they are so rare these periods can wreak havoc on the region’s fragile economy.” Here’s What You Need To Know About The Devastating Drought In China’s Shangri-La Region, Business Insider, April 10

 

“Working on a joint project with IBM, Saudi Arabia’s national research group King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology(KACST) has announced that it will open the world’s largest solar-powered desalination plant by 2012 in the city of Al-Khafji. The pilot plant will not just supply 30,000 cubic meters of clean water per day to 100,000 people, but will also reduce operating costs in the long run by harvesting energy from sunshine.” Saudi Arabia’s Big Bet on the Sun, CBS News Tech, April 9
“Despite the fall in rice yields, Tengchong aimed to raise annual production by adopting water-saving measures and growing less water-demanding crops… the so-called “dry soil bed breeding” required two thirds less water compared to “wet soil bed breeding”, where seedlings grow in water-soaked fields, Li Hongshun said..” New planting methods maintain farm output in drought-hit Yunnan, China Daily, April 10

Drought in the Mekong River Basin

The last week has seen an eruption of chatter and concern over the low flows in the Mekong River, and the impacts on downstream Riparian nations, specifically Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

First and foremost, the current drought conditions are not isolated to the Mekong Basin. The Southwestern Chinese provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan have experienced unprecedented drought (as I have been following on this blog). The drought has led to widespread crop-failure, and subsequent famine risk.   I find the amount of blame being placed on China surprising and perhaps inappropriate.  Admittedly, China’s dams are likely holding some of the water back that would normally flow down the Mekong as some of the articles point out below.  The Chinese officials in these (and other) articles continue to reference their use of water in terms of the “average flow” of the Mekong, but given that current conditions are not “average” the abstraction from the river should be compared to actual, current Mekong flow.

It is very promising to hear and read that the MRC is successfully convening a summit of all six riparians, something which has not happened for over a decade.  Certainly, the downstream riparians will need China to be a part of a coordinated Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) plan.  In a water scarce future, with increasing demands for agriculture, fisheries, electricity and transport, the downstream riparians comprising the current MRC members  .  This basin may serve as interesting basin in which downstream riparians will seek other key points of leverage with which to influence China’s hydrologic policy, possibly involving other regional or global actors to help provide pressure for China to cooperate.



A particular glitch in the current web-coverage of the Mekong situation is the number of Chinese dams on the Lancang, or upper Mekong River. Above, you can see a graphic originally provided by International Rivers. I have edited the colors used to indicate the dams (changing the three colors used to denote different categories of construction status from dark blue, black and white, to yellow, red and green). I also edited the inset map to clarify the location of this part of the Mekong.

Hopefully, this map will help to provide some clarity as Chinese hydroelectric projects move forward.

Here is a collection of articles from the region and beyond examining the current situation in the Mekong River basin:
“… the filling of the Xiaowan dam’s reservoir happens to coincide with the onset of the current drought and the subsequent drop in downstream flows.”  For whom the mighty Mekong flows, Bangkok Post, March 31

“…poverty in the GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) remains high, with average GDP per capita of less than $2 per day.” Mekong countries working hard by slowly to lift regionBangkok Post, March 31

“…the growing crisis has spurred a diplomatic discussion and the first summit meeting of the six riparians in the 15-year history of the Mekong Commission.” The coming crisis over the Mekong — unconstrained development, natural droughts, and climate change, SF Gate, April 3

“Song said the runoff volume of Lancang River accounts for only 13.5 percent of that of the Mekong River.  The runoff of Mekong River mainly comes from the middle-and-lower Mekong basin, amounting to 86.5 percent.” China to boost co-op with downstream Mekong countries, China Daily, April 4

Chinese officials dismissed concerns that their waterwords had affected downstream countries… “At present, we only use a tiny part of the average flow of the Lancang…” China Dam Plans raise Mekong fears, Financial Times, March 31
NOTE:  I would like to point out that the Financial Times article seems somewhat misleading, because it gives the impression that the drought hit areas of SW China, including Yunnan and Guizhou, are hydrologically linked to the Mekong River basin.  Although these regions are experiencing the same climatological drought conditions, they are not hydrologically linked since they are within separate watersheds.

Mekong River “plunged to its lowest level in 20 years”

According to Al Jazeera’s recent article the “Mekong River plunged to its lowest level in 20 years.”
The Mekong river originates in China and flows south through the Tibetan Plateau, and along the border of Burma, Laos, Thailand, through Cambodia and out its delta in Vietnam.
Al Jazeera interviewed  Andrew Walker, a researcher at Australian National University, who suggests that the dams are for hydropower, and aren’t for anything other than energy generation.  Walker elaborated saying,
“There might be some minor fluctuations given the balance between dam filling and release, in comparison to the effect of the very low rainfall throughout the region over the past year….Water shortages in the dry season in Southeast Asia are not unusual at all.”
Experts within the basin have a different attitude.  Witoon Permpongsarcheren of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network said:
“..upward of the Golden Triangle there are no main tributaries from Laos…So whatever is happening with the flow at the Golden Triangle is almost 100 per cent from China.”
This seems to be a classic case of the upstream riparian holding all the cards.  That is to say, China has the economic clout, military strength, and upstream hydrology.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), formed in 1995 (after many decades of nascence) is comprised of Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam.  The absence of China in the MRC makes comprehensive water management plans impossible.
This month, WaterSecurity will explore the emergence of the MRC, other state and non-state actors in the Basin, as well as the future of this basin in terms physical drivers such as climate change and social drivers such as China’s longterm energy demand.
Stay Tuned!