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Mekong summit changes nothing

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COMMENTS

9 April 2010 09:12

With something closer to a whimper than a bang, the first summit meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) concluded in Hua Hin, Thailand, on Monday 5 April.

As I predicted, none of the MRC leaders chose to confront China over its repeated claims that dams in China have nothing to do with the prolonged and serious drought that has led to the lowest recorded water levels in the river in the past fifty years. These claims of no responsibility were repeated at the meeting by China's Vice Foreign Minister, Song Tao, who was present as an observer and who said that the drought 'has nothing to do with the (Chinese) hydropower development'.

Nevertheless, the MRC leaders did call for greater cooperation with China in managing the Mekong, with the Thai Prime Minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, saying '(t)his summit is sending a message that all countries in the Mekong Region, both its upper and lower parts, are stakeholders, and we all have to take joint responsibility for its long-term sustainability.'

This may have been a coded reference to concerns that the cause of the river's low water levels is to be found in the fact that China in the process of impounding (filling) its giant dam at Xiaowan. If so, Abhisit did not receive support from Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen, who absolved China from blame and put the condition of the river firmly down to climate change.

As I argued in a previous post, we simply do not have, and are not likely to obtain, hydrological data that will confirm or reject the allegations against the dam at Xiaowan. And the Chinese offer to share data about its dams at Jinghong and Manwan will not play any useful part in resolving the debates that have arisen during the drought. 

This fact is unlikely to assuage NGOs critical of China, some of which are still claiming that the floods that affected the Mekong in August 2008 were the result of China releasing water from its dams without notification. This is despite the fact that, shortly after the event, the MRC released detailed scientific evidence to show the flooding resulted from an abnormal storm over Laos and northern Thailand.

The fact that the CEO of the MRC Secretariat, Jeremy Bird, has continued to place blame for the Mekong's low water levels on the drought will reinforce the criticisms that some NGOs have of the organisation.  

None of this is to suggest that China's dams do not pose problems for the downstream MRC countries. In the longer term they certainly do, as I outlined in some detail in 'The Mekong: River Under Threat'. And these threats, involving alteration to river flow patterns, diminishing of sediment flow and effects on fish catches, to mention only the most prominent, will be real in the years to come. But the MRC countries' goal of closer cooperation with China will not be helped by a tendency to embrace unproven claims against it.

What's more, there are other, more directly concerning issues that the MRC countries need to confront — the plans now on the table to build dams on the mainstream of the Mekong below China. These are plans for which Cambodia and Laos, not China have responsibility.

Photo by Flickr user Martino's doodles, used under a Creative Commons license.

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