Lancang-Mekong River is the world’s 11th longest river running through China,
Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In terms of bio-diversity, Lancang-Mekong
is second only after the Amazon. For thousands of years, the river has been
providing beneficial floods, fish, alluvial soil, fresh water and food for the
people living alongside its route and in its basin.
Today, Lancang-Mekong is no longer the same life- supporting river to the people
in the region. The entire Lancang-Mekong basin has seen the historic drought
in 2010 and downstream people blamed China dams for the problem. Precipitation
and water level throughout the basin dropped to 1 in 50 year low level and even
lowest historical level in Vietnam. Last year, Mekong fishermen were mostly
empty- handed. Each fisherman used to catch 50 kg of fish per day in the past,
but last year, the market fish price in Vietnam delta shot up 10 times right
at the peak of the flood season when fish should be plentiful and least expensive.
In the second week of February this year, all three monitoring
stations in Vietnam recorded water level at zero at Tan Chau, Chau Doc and
Vam Nao, and below zero gage at Can Tho. The river stopped flowing at all the
above three stations and reversed its direction at Can Tho for several days.
Segments of the river have become stagnant ponds and navigation had stopped.
The drought of 2010 is about to repeat, local language media are all quiet,
the Mekong River Commission and the Mekong governments have nothing to say as
the disaster is about to unfold all over again.
The river ecosystem was largely intact despite several decades of wars in
the region. But ironically widespread environmental destruction has occurred
since peace was restored: exhaustive mining, forest cutting, reckless and haphazard
urban development, weak social institutions, poor governance and adverse impacts
of climate change have wrecked havoc on the basin's growing and poor population.
China has built many major mainstream dams on the Lancang: the Manwan in 1993,
Jinghong in 2001, Dachaoshan 2004 and the giant 15 BCM, 292 m high and 4200
MW Xiaowan dam in 2010. China is in the process of completing the 22 billion
cubic meters, 261 m high and 5,500 MW dam- the Nouzhadu- by 2014. Since this
program, the Lancang-Mekong has experienced erratic flow fluctuations, increasingly
more frequent and extreme droughts and floods and their adverse environmental
impacts and social destruction. International
have issued stern warnings of an environmental catastrophe of epic scale if
nothing is done. They have petitioned China stop completing all the 8 dams in
the Upper Mekong Basin (UMB), and the Mekong countries stop building the 12
dams in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB).
In the face of this hydropower madness, Dr.
Ngo The Vinh, the author of “Mekong-The Occluding River” has warned that
the Tonle Sap Lake, the heart of the basin will “cease to beat”. The fresh water
source and food security of 65 million poor Lancang-Mekong people would be destroyed
even without the climate change added problems.
The widespread uncoordinated and destructive course of development in the
Lancang-Mekong basin is the blatant disregard of the Helsinki Rules (1996),
Nations Convention (1997) and the Berlin Rules (2004) on international water
courses. China has been chiefly responsible for the growing suspicion against
them in the last 15 years by withholding the hydrological data, construction
plans and reservoirs operation in the Yunnan from the LMB countries. China’s
lack of cooperation with the LMB nations, if unabated, will undermine greater
regional economic cooperation and will certainly deny China and ASEAN to reach
their fullest trade potential.
China and ASEAN cannot afford to let the Lancang-Mekong slowly die this way.
No country in the Lancang-Mekong should dam or divert the river flow for its
own benefits at the expense of neighboring countries. In 2010, China’s trade
exchange with ASEAN has approached 300 billions of U.S dollars, reaching
the trade level between China and the European Union. ASEAN trade will soon
approach that of the trade between China and the U.S. The urgent call for the
EU and the US to reduce the trade deficit with China would only elevate ASEAN
as the most important and strategic trade partner with China.
It is completely conceivable that China could reverse the last 15 years of
mistrust and build new good will with the LMB if China voluntarily offers to
match the LMB’s act of self restraint per the MRC 2010 SEA’s recommendation,
and postpones the Nouzhadu completion plan for 10 years. That means about 3
Billion US dollars investment in this project, if that much to date, to sleep
and remain unproductive. China would also have to let the $1.5 Billion US dollars
in terms of equivalent expected annual hydro-power revenue from Nouzhadu temporarily
on hold. All that is a difficult idea to accept for the hydropower developer
in Yunnan but when compared to the increasing 300+ Billion US dollars ASEAN’s
annual trade with China, the compromise is not unjustifiable.
The Lancang-Mekong is the longest international river that links China to
ASEAN. China and ASEAN, as world trading partners must take action now to put
a sound foundation for the Lancang- Mekong region. China and ASEAN’s better
future cannot be achieved in the absence of the Lancang-Mekong River Initiative
and the Lancang Mekong River Treaty. The LMI and Treaty should be signed before
2014 for the China-ASEAN cooperation to be truly meaningful. The year 2014 is
when China completes the Nouzhadu dam.
The Dismal State of the Lancang-Mekong Basin
Lancang is in the upper segment (UMB) of the Lancang-Mekong river and the
Mekong is the lower segment (LMB)of the Lancang Mekong river. They are two segments
of the same international river, therefore belonging to a single ecosystem.
Migratory fish and sediment flow freely crossing all political borders made
by man for thousands of years, but mainstream hydropower dams constructed since
1995 in China and on the tributaries in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam have prevented
water and sediment from moving freely and altered the river natural flood flow
and drought cycle, essential for the fish production and farming economy in
The failure of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)
The Mekong River Agreement was signed in 1995 and the Mekong River Commission
(MRC) was founded by four LMB downstream countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos
and Thailand under the mandate to encourage sustainable development for the
region. Since 1995, the Mekong region development has been unsustainable. The
basin has suffered eight consecutive drought seasons in 15 years, fish catch
has decreased steadily while salt water intrusion reached 70 km deep into land,
and in 2009 more than 20,000
hectares of crops throughout the Delta were immersed in saltwater.
Climate change and human interferences are causing the problems much more
severe each year. The MRC has not taken any real action to mitigate the impacts
or stop the progression of unsustainable development among the LMB members and
nothing at all when it comes to China. The MRC’s Drought Management Plan - DMP
and Flood Management Plan – FMP remain management plans. No single drought,
flood or bank erosion has been mitigated. The subsistence livelihoods, fresh
water and food security of the riparian people continue to deteriorate. The
MRC, under the direction of the Mekong Ministers limit its scope of research
within the political territory of the four member countries as if impacts from
China dams do not matter. The MRC was blindfolded and has silenced their scientists
and consultants from investigating and reporting their findings about China
activates in the UMB.
During the past two decades, in the UMB Yunnan Province, China has built many
mainstream dams, the Man Loan(1993), Dachaosan (2001), Jinghong (2004), Xiaowan
(2010)and Nouzhadu by 2014. The MRC has not conducted any Strategic Environmental
Assessment (SEA) for any of those Yunnan project or actively engaged China to
conduct SEA per international standard and practice. MRC never questions China
about the complete absence in practice their 15 years of repeated promises that
Yunnan reservoirs will help the LMB mitigate their floods and alleviate their