Fifty four years have passed since the day the United Nations established the Mekong River Committee (1957) and sixteen years since the birth of the Mekong River Commission (1995). China has and will build mammoth hydroelectric dams on the main current of the Upper Mekong. On the other hand, Thailand entertains plans to divert water from the Mekong. In recent days, the three countries of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia are also evaluating projects to construct twelve dams downstream the river.
To date (2011), China has finished building 4 of the series of fourteen hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan. The fifth and largest dam Nuozhadu is under construction concurrently with the sixth one named Gongguoqio. The first dam named Manwan went into operation almost two decades ago. With the completion of the Nuozhadu Dam, two years from now, we can conclude that China has, for the most part, achieved the objectives it initially set for its series of hydroelectric dams in the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan and becomes the de facto “owner” of the Mekong.
There are no signs showing that the building pace of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong’s current is slackening. With just four dams in Yunnan in operation, the immediate and undeniable impacts they cause are already being felt by the nations downstream: irregular flood waters during the Rainy Season, sections of the river drained dry in the Dry one, and severe salinization in the Mekong Delta. What should the approximately seventy million inhabitants of the Mekong Basin including about twenty million souls of the Mekong Delta need to do to adapt and survive?
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has shown its ineptitude when it failed to conduct any serious studies about the impacts the dams in Yunnan brought to bear in the Lower Mekong. The nations bordering this River can no longer rely on the ineffective MRC. It is high time for them to take matter in their own hands and carry out those studies to search for solutions and discuss them in international forums.
An innovative initiative is offered by the Viet Ecology Foundation calling for the establishment of a “Lancang-Mekong Organization” with six member states including China and Myanmar.
This is the first of a three-part article written by Dr Ngo The Vinh, the author of “Mekong – The Occluding River”.
THE UNREALIZED “BIG DREAM’
In the early1940’s, American dam builders had shown a deep interest in the Mekong’s potential to generate hydroelectricity. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the Mekong River Committee was established in the midst of the Cold War or more precisely in 1957. It maintained a permanent office in Bangkok and was comprised of four member states: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the planning stage of its development projects, the United Nations divided the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) into two basins:
• The Upper Basin encompassing the province of Yunnan in
• The Lower Basin covering the five nations along the Lower Mekong.
Those two Basins are separated by the Golden Triangle that borders Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. The development plan for the Lower Basin of the Mekong represents an ambitious “Great Dream” of the United Nations to improve the lives of all the people who live along that river’s current. [Even though half of the Mekong’s current meanders through Yunnan Province, China at that time was a closed society which went undetected on the radar screen of the world.]
But then, the Vietnam War spread to the three countries of Indochina for over three decades. Consequently, the building of large hydroelectric dams like Pa Mong, Sambor, Khemmerat on the Lower Mekong main current and other development projects were put on hold allowing the Mekong to retain her pristine state for some more time.
THE GHOST OF THE KILLING FIELDS
Though the Vietnam War ended in 1975, in the neighboring land of Angkor, the Khmer Rouge had consolidated their authority and launched their atrocious genocidal campaign. The moribund Mekong Interim Committee was established in 1978 without the participation of Cambodia. During that time, Thailand introduced a plan to divert a significant part of the Mekong’s water to irrigate its Northeastern provinces which were suffering from prolonged drought. This plan was met with tenacious opposition from Vietnam. As a result, claiming that this organization was no longer relevant to the changed political, economic and social conditions of the region, Thailand refused to acknowledge the Mekong Interim Committee’s legal authority. Facing such dissension, this body fell into a state of near paralysis.
FROM THE MEKONG RIVER COMMITTEE (1957) TO THE MEKONG RIVER COMMISSION
Immediately following the restoration of peace, the six nations in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) turned their focus to the exploitation of the Mekong River. These countries may all play host to the same river but they harbor conflicting interests as well as different priorities in their development outlook. Consequently, the creation of a multinational coordinating institution similar to the Mekong River Committee became the first order of the day.
On April 5, 1995 the four original member states of the Mekong River Committee met in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, to sign “The Agreement on the Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin” and changed the institution’s name to the Mekong River Commission. A fundamental modification was introduced into this Agreement: In the past, members of the defunct Mekong River Committee could veto any project they deemed detrimental to the main current of the Mekong. With the new by-laws, they were deprived of that veto power.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) headquartered in Vientiane consisted of three permanent bodies: the Council (ministerial level), the Joint Committee and the Secretariat. In contrast to the original ambitious goal of exploiting the Mekong River’s potentials for the long-run prosperity of the whole region, the MRC only set for itself much more modest objectives in both scale and scope (3), including:
• Three core programs: Water utilization program, Development of the Basin
program, and Environment program
• Five sector programs: Agriculture, Hydro-forestry, Fishery, Transportation, Tourism
• Capacity Building Program
The Mekong River Commission was supported by international institutions, private organizations, research institutes, and national bodies. After sixteen years in operation (1995-present), the MRC was able to claim some early achievements like reaching an agreement for information sharing among the four member states; setting up an “internet website” for the forecasting of flood and monitoring of the current’s flow during the Dry Seasons; reaching in April, 2002 an agreement of historical import on the exchange of hydrological data with China… On the whole, the Commission is not highly regarded by its original supporters for its efficacy and prestige. It also proves to be a disappointment to the environmental organizations.
THE UPPER BASIN – THE OCCLUDING LANCANG
Lancang Jiang is the Chinese name for the stretch of the Mekong that flows within the Upper Basin. The strategic plan to build the 14 dams of the Mekong Cascades in Yunnan dated all the way back to the 1970’s. Over the last three decades, China has been vigorously exploiting the Lancang Jiang through the construction of giant hydroelectric dams blocking the main current of this river.
Of the 14 dams in the Mekong Cascades only four had been built so far: Manwan (1,500 MW), Dachaoshan (1,350 MW), Jinghong (1,350 MW), and Xiaowan (4,200 MW). Yet the Mekong’s water level has never reached such low levels during the Dry Season.
At several sections, the river practically dried up showing its bare bed. Fishing and agricultural activities were directly affected. All those phenomena could not be singly attributed to “lack” of rainfalls. In 1993, the Mekong’s water level dropped to an unusual low even though it did not occur during the Dry Season. It took place because at that time China was diverting the river’s water to fill the Manwan Dam’s reservoir.
To have enough water to operate the four existing hydroelectric dams, China
frequently closes their flood gates causing the water level of the river to
dip to its lowest levels. Beijing failed to disclose information about the operations
of its dams leaving the countries downstream unprepared to deal with the arising
situations on a timely manner.
At the Chiang Khong berth in Northern Thailand, the 38-year old boat skipper named Odd Boutha sighed: “If China continues to build dams like this, the Mekong will turn into a stream”.
Chainarong Sretthachau, Director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network, remarked: “China really has the power to control the current of the Mekong”.(2)
Due to its fast growing economy, China now faces the formidable task of maintaining a 5% to 6% annual growth in its electricity production. Moreover, to satisfy its insatiable thirst for energy, it is totally unrealistic to expect China to relent in its quest to harness the rich potentials for hydropower the Mekong River has to offer.
Commenting on the Chinese plans to exploit the Mekong, Tyson Roberts at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (USA) remarked: “The construction of hydroelectric dams, use of the river as a navigation channel, and heavy commercial shipping will eventually asphyxiate the Mekong River… The exploitation steps China undertook will result in the degradation of the ecology and catastrophic pollution causing the Mekong to die a gradual death” (3)
In the case of Cambodia, the plain and simple truth is that her heart, the Tonle Sap Lake, can only keep beating as long as the Tonle Sap River succeeds in alternating the direction of its current. During the Rainy Season the Tonle Sap River must reverse course and flow into the lake. This is a matter of life and death to the supply of fish and rice cultivation in the Land of Angkor. Unfortunately, there is no assurance that things will remain that way in the future.
In 2005, before taking a flight to attend the Summit Meeting in Kunming, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly voiced his almost unconditional support for China’s exploitation plan of the Mekong River in spite of desperate warnings from alarmed expert environmentalists. [Phnom Penh, AFP, 6/29/05]
After the recent Ayeyawady-Chao Praya-Mekong Economic Cooperation Strategy (ACMECS) Summit in November of 2010 in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen again dismissed all concerns about the impacts of the hydroelectric dams on the Mekong’s flow. He asserted that the cycle of floods and droughts was caused by climate change and carbon monoxide emission that had nothing to do with the series of hydroelectric dams in China. [The Phnom Penh Post, Nov 17, 2010]
Meanwhile, a respected Chinese scholar, Professor Qin Hui of the prestigious Tsinghua University in Beijing, has voiced his criticism concerning the less than transparent way the Chinese government handles the issues pertaining to the dams in Yunnan. He noted: “Yes, only some 14% of the water at the Mekong’s mouth comes from China; but 70% of reservoir capacity in the Mekong Basin within China – and this will rise to 90% when Nuozhadu dam comes into operation. Moreover, all of China’s Mekong reservoir capacity is on the river proper, while other nations have built dams only on tributaries.
Particularly bizarre is the fact that China’s officials for some reason talk of “the three reservoirs of the Lancang”, when domestic media have reported on a much bigger fourth project: the Xiaowan dam.” (9)
The Tibetan High Plateau, also known as the Third Pole on earth, is the cradle
of the major rivers in Asia. Even though his country Tibet is suffering from
lack of freedom under Chinese rule, the Dalai Lama prefers to espouse a long
run perspective when he advocates that the preservation of the ecology should
take precedence over politics. (8)