China Should Set Good Example on the Mekong River
Summary：A slew of dam projects on the Mekong River are gearing up
involving several countries. China is a major party, both as a direct
builder of dams on the Upper Mekong and investor of projects on the
Lower Mekong. It should set a good example by carrying out thorough
environmental impact studies.
Jan 25, 2013
By Anchalee Kongrut,a journalist from the Bangkok Post who is on
exchange with the Economic Observer
What do Chinese think of when they hear "Mekong River?" I asked my
friends and their answers pointed to the brutal killing of Chinese
sailors in 2011 by drug kingpin Naw Kham, who was sentenced to death
by a Chinese court.
For them, the Mekong River – known as Lancang Jiang (Turbulent River)
in Chinese - appears to be an outlaw territory inhibited by pirates
and drug kingpins.
But I probed further, asking about the dams that are planned in the
upper reaches of the Mekong in Yunnan Province. ''It is small and not
popular compared to the Yangtze and Yellow rivers,'' my friend said.
She certainly knew about the notorious Three Gorges Dam, but admitted
she didn't know much about the controversial Mekong River dam
The public has become more skeptical and resistant to dam construction
in recent years, especially since the State Council admitted major
geological, human and ecological problems resulting from the Three
Gorges Dam. But even though the Mekong River originates in the Tibetan
Plateau – just like the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers – the
controversial dam projects there still aren't on the radar for most
In 1995, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established by Laos,
Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to promote sustainable use of the
river. China, along with Myanmar, is a "dialogue partner," but not
Indeed, China probably isn't anxious to get too involved with the
MRC. In 2002, China was blamed for damaging the Mekong's pristine
ecology when it collaborated with Thailand to dynamite shoals, rapids
and reefs in order to free up navigation routes for large cargo ships.
The move spurred more trade, but local villagers living along the
river in Laos and Thailand complained about bank erosion, a dwindling
fish population and loss of biodiversity.
Then, at an MRC meeting in Thailand two years ago, Chinese delegates
became the target of ministers from Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and
Cambodia, who blamed Chinese dams for causing downstream floods when
they were opened and droughts when they were closed. China responded
by sharing some data on water flow, but blamed the problems downstream
on climate change.
Chinese delegates attending MRC's meeting in Laos earlier this month
may have breathed a sigh of relief though when Laos and Thailand
became the new targets of dam indignation. Laos, along with Thai
investors, decided to go ahead with the $3.6 billion Xayaburi Dam
despite warnings from conservationists and opposition from Vietnam and
Cambodia. When it becomes operational in 2018, the Xayaburi will be
the first dam on the lower Mekong.
China's Mekong ambitions are also just getting started. According to
data from the environmental group International Rivers, China plans to
build at least 19 more dams on the Upper Mekong in addition to the
seven that are already completed. And according to information from
TERRA, a conservation group in Southeast Asia, Chinese companies are
reportedly investing in as many as 10 dam projects in Laos, while in
Cambodia, China Southern Power Grid (CSGP) might invest in the Sambor
Dam to sell electricity to Thailand.
The future of the Mekong River is worrying. The Xayaburi Dam alone
would curtail migration of up to 100 fish species and spell doom for
the Mekong Giant Catfish. According to a technical review released in
March 2011 by the MRC, the dam's reservoir will silt up and prevent
soil alluvial from running down to nourish farmland and major rice
plantations in Vietnam.
Development of hydropower on the Mekong River is nothing new. As early
as the 1970s, both the U.S. and Japan were trying to promote dam
projects in the Mekong region through aid agencies like the World Bank
and Asian Development Bank.
But with strong protests and anti-dam movements around the world, dam
projects on the Mekong River were shelved until the end of last year
when the Laotian government gave the nod to go ahead with the Xayaburi
The U.S. is still involved with the Mekong River, but now in a
different role: conservationist. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
openly voiced concern about dam construction on the Mekong River
during her visit late last year. Likewise, Japan has pledged to help
affected countries study the environmental impacts of the planned
China is a relative newcomer to the geopolitics of the Lower Mekong.
While it may have so far dodged significant opposition to its own
projects on the Upper Mekong, it can expect plenty of conservationists
in Southeast Asia to protest its hydropower investments. In August
last year, villagers in Thailand had already sued the Thai government
and state enterprises to stop them from buying electricity generated
from Mekong River dams.
China has a great opportunity to set a good example. In 2004, Premier
Wen Jiabao made a significant move by shelving many dam projects so
environmental impact studies could be conducted. The country can again
gain a good reputation worldwide if the Chinese government and
companies apply the same attitude with all dam investments.
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