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Thais flog China with wet commission

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24 February 2010 16:39

You wouldn't know it from the Australian press, but there is a major drought in southeastern China producing devastating effects in three provinces: Yunnan, Guangxi and Guzhou.

Described as the worst drought in 60 years, its effects are most serious in Yunnan, where there has been no worthwhile rain since July 2009, drinking water is running short for nearly 5 million people and the economic loss in the agricultural sector is already close to A$1 billion. There is no expectation of relief rains until May at the earliest.

The drought is having a striking effect on the Mekong River (known in China as the Lancang Jiang), with its level in China reported to be at a 50-year low.

International shipping between southern Yunnan and the northern Thai river port at Chiang Saen has been interrupted, with no fewer than 21 boats having been been stranded. While I have not seen any extended commentary on the effect of the drought on the capacity of the three completed Chinese dams on the Mekong in Yunnan province to function in current circumstances, an official has said low water levels 'might effect the electronic plant' of the hydro-power dams. In Thailand there are reports of a sharp and unseasonable drop in the Mekong's level.

As I said in my recent Lowy Paper, 'The Mekong: River Under Threat', the Mekong does not figure much in broader discussion in Thailand except at times of drought. Current developments validate this view. Not only have Thai NGOs called for their government to ask the Chinese authorities in Yunnan about the level of water being held in their Mekong dams, the issue has now been taken up by the Bangkok press. And Thai authorities have indeed taken action, with the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Natural Resources, Saksit Tridech, asking the Mekong River Commission to negotiate with China to release water from dams in Yunnan.

That Saksit Tridech has acted in this way is ironic. Ever since the Mekong River Commission came into being in 1995, successive Thai governments have treated it with reserve, at best, and dismissively more often. Adding to the irony is the vital fact that Thai officials, no less than other commentators, know that the MRC has no real mandate to negotiate with the Chinese authorities, at least in any formal legal sense.

In any event, China is not a member of the MRC and is unlikely ever to become one because of its clear determination not to accept any interference in how it deals with the use and control of the Mekong. It's difficult not to think that in seeking to proceed through the MRC, Thai authorities are looking for a way to avoid directly having to confront China over a difficult issue.

The consensus view is that the dams China has built — and is continuing to build — on the Mekong will have their most important negative effects on downstream countries some time in the future, perhaps in a decade. But with the distinct possibility that China is holding back water in its dams in order to maintain sufficient levels for power generation, it is beginning to seem that if droughts were to become more frequent, so will its relations with its fellow Mekong riparian countries become more complex.

It will now be interesting to see whether the concerns that have emerged in Thailand bring any echo in the other downstream countries for which the Mekong is so important: Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. So far, this does not seem to be the case.

Photo by Flickr user alanalew, used under a Creative Commons license.

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