The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization that promotes cooperation in the vital Asian waterway, called on China and its downstream Southeast Asian neighbors Wednesday to share information more transparently for better management of the river’s resources.
In its situation report, the MRC urged China, as well as members Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, to share data with each other to assess recent changes in the river’s flow patterns and potential impact on riparian communities.
“For the sake of better management of the basin and of good faith cooperation, both Member Countries and China should notify any planned major changes in the operation of hydropower projects and share that information with the MRC Secretariat,” An Pich Hatda, the MRC Secretariat chief executive officer, said in a statement.
The MRC that found that during the dry season starting in November 2020 and ending in May 2021, water levels the river’s main stream in Laos and Thailand fluctuated, and water levels in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake were lower than usual, the report said, attributing the changes to upstream dams in China and Laos.
Tonle Sap’s waters ebb and flow with the annual cycle of the river connecting it to the Mekong, and it has been drying at a rapid rate in recent years, threatening the fish stocks providing millions of Cambodians with their main source of protein.
The Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) would have above-average rainfall in June and August, but a July that is dryer than usual, the report predicted.
“The low levels in the Tonle Sap Lake in May will continue into June and July as the tributary dams fill up as the rain starts. The reverse flow to the Tonle Sap Lake, which usually starts in mid-May, is consequently expected to follow the previous year’s pattern but is still subject to actual rainfall over LMB from June to October 2021,” the report said.
China has built 11 dams in the Upper Mekong, which it calls the Lancang, and Laos had built around 80 dams on the Mekong and its tributaries, with plans to build many more in its controversial bid to become the “Battery of Southeast Asia,” by selling the generated power to neighboring countries.
Changes in the river caused by hydropower projects “may have impacted navigation, river ecosystems, and riverbank stability, although more study is needed to pinpoint the type and extent of impact,” the MRC’s statement said.
The report said that water releases from storage dams caused above-average flow increases for most of the dry season, and this had both positive and negative implications on the region.
More water could be good for farming, navigation and reversing seawater encroachment in the Mekong Delta, the report said.
However, even though Thailand and the northern part of Cambodia had record rainfall in April and May, river levels did not increase significantly in those months, according to the report.
The MRC recommended more detailed research on water level patterns, particularly at several new monitoring stations in Laos. Additionally, it said studies on better active management of basin-wide water storage could reduce negative impact on riparian communities.
The report marks the first time that the MRC made clear the impact of dam projects on the Mekong River, the Thai People’s Network in Eight Mekong Provinces, a citizens’ group that has filed a lawsuit in Thailand related to construction of Laos’ Xayaburi dam, told the RFA-affiliated online news service BenarNews.
“The MRC should have performed their job and made the issue clear a long time ago. Especially in the past two years, China’s dams and the Xayaburi dam have caused hardship on the people in Isan [Thailand’s northeastern region],” said Ormbun Thipsuna, director of the network.
“It’s time for four MRC member-countries to discuss and find who is to be responsible for the mismanagement of water to have affected other countries, and materialize its consensus,” she said.
BenarNews attempted to contact Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary-general to the Office of the National Water Resources of Thailand, but he could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
In 2020, China agreed to share data on water levels and rainfall with the MRC, promising to alert the commission and its members of abnormalities.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a briefing Wednesday that Beijing was “completely open and transparent” in providing data to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, another platform that facilitates international cooperation between China and the Lower Mekong countries.
"Since November 2020, China has been providing hydrological information of the Lancang River to Mekong countries on a daily basis… and has been offering notification on major changes in discharge volume downstream," Wang said.
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