Chinese diplomats recently denied charges by Thai environmental groups that dam construction on the Mekong River’s upper reaches in Yunnan Province was creating record-low water levels. They blamed the drought.
One of the longest rivers in Asia, the Mekong is 4,300 kilometers long and wends its way from the Tibetan plains through Vietnam and the South China Sea. It is currently witnessing its lowest levels for 50 years, in Southeast Asia, India and China.
China’s assistant foreign minister Hu Zhengyue recently told Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva that dams being constructed in Yunnan province were not the reason, however.
China has already completed construction of the Xiaowan hydroelectric dam and there are a further eight hydro-electric dams planned for Yunnan Province.
Mekong River Commission also blames drought
China is backed in its view by the Mekong River Commission, whose chief executive, Jeremy Bird, blames drought not dams. "Looking at the flow records that we have, we see no reason to suggest that any operation of those projects upstream has made the situation worse.
"In fact, there's some evidence to suggest that if those dams had not been in place then the lower water levels may have been experienced even earlier, in January."
Bird adds that Yunnan is also facing the dry conditions that are currently being experienced in northern Thailand and Laos.
Thailand periodically suffers from droughts but there has been significantly less rainfall recently than usual
Environmental groups blame dams
But environmental groups maintain that China’s dams are affecting water levels.
"We have found that there is not only the drought," says Pianporn Deetes from the Save the Mekong Coalition.
"Of course, there has been less rainfall in the region during the past months but we have found that the water level is fluctuating unnaturally in the Mekong River. Apart from dam regulation, we cannot see any other factors affecting this. It’s not a natural drought but the impact from large-scale infrastructure – from the dam upstream in China."
Fear of conflicts over water
There are fears that the growing demand for the Mekong’s waters will also lead to increasing tensions. Millions of people depend on the river's water for food and drinking water.
The meteorologist and head of the National Disaster Warning Centre, Smith Dharmasaroja, believes that global warming will also have a longer-term impact on the water flows. He thinks conflicts over water will increase in the years to come.
Millions depend on the Mekong River for their livelihood - some fear there will be fierce water conflicts in future
"Of course they will fight. Each country will fight for water. We will have a war, a water war, in this region and when people need to water to drink, they will fight for everything. So conflict between Lao, Thai, Myanmar (Burma) and Kampuchea (Cambodia) is going to happen – we will wait and see."
In an editorial, the English-language Bangkok Post recently said that China's building of the dams completely disregarded both the Mekong River's ecological system and the affected populations in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Cambodia.
Author: Ron Corben
Editor: Anne Thomas