Richardson is a visiting senior research fellow at the Institute
of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.
in 1986, when China began building the first of a series of
dams on the Mekong River, hardly anyone in the downstream countries
of Southeast Asia paid attention. But today, as China races
to finish the fourth dam for generating electricity on the upper
reaches of Southeast Asia’s biggest river, concerns about
possible environmental impacts in the region are rising fast.
Moreover, fear about antagonizing China and Southeast Asia’s
internecine dispute might make any concerted move unlikely.
sheer scale of China’s engineering to harness the power
of the Mekong and change its natural flow is setting off alarm
bells, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, the
four countries of the lower Mekong basin where more than 60
million people depend on the river for food, water and transportation.
in May by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and
the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) warned that China’s
plan for a cascade of eight dams on the Mekong, which it calls
the Lancang Jiang, might pose “a considerable threat”
to the river and its natural riches. In June, Thailand’s
prime minister was handed a petition calling for a halt to dam
building. It was signed by over 11,000 people, many of them
subsistence farmers and fishermen who live along the river’s
mainstream and its many tributaries.
analysts say that if the worst fears of critics are realized,
relations between China and its neighbours in mainland Southeast
Asia will be severely damaged. But mindful of the growing power
and influence of China, Southeast Asian governments have muffled
their concern. Meanwhile, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have put
forward plans to dam their sections of the Mekong mainstream,
prompting Vietnam to object and undermining the local environmentalists’
case against China.
the Mekong is widely regarded as a Southeast Asian river, its
source is in the glaciers high in Tibet. Nearly half of the
4,880 kilometer river flows through China’s Yunnan province
before it reaches Southeast Asia. Since there is no international
treaty governing use of trans-boundary rivers, China is in a
dominant position, controlling the Mekong’s headwater.
It has the right to develop its section of the river as it sees
fit, and has done so without consulting its neighbours, let
alone seeking their approval.
Mekong River basin drains water from an area of 795,000 square
kilometers. The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental
agency formed in 1995 by the four lower basin countries estimates
that the sustainable hydropower potential of the lower basin
alone is a massive 30,000 megawatts. But it also says that there
are major challenges in balancing the benefits of clean electricity,
water storage and flood control from the dams against negative
impacts. These include population displacement, obstruction
to fish movements up and down the river, and changes in water
and sediment flow.
cascade of dams being constructed in Yunnan will generate over
15,500 megawatts of electricity for cities and industries, helping
to replace polluting fossil fuels, particularly coal and oil.
The eight Yunnan dams will produce about the same amount of
electricity as 30 big coal-burning plants.
fourth of China’s Mekong dams, at Xiaowan, is due to be
completed by 2012 at a cost of nearly US$4 billion. Rising 292
meters, the dam wall will be the world’s tallest. Its
reservoir will hold 15 billion cubic meters of water, more than
five times the combined capacity of the first three Chinese
dams. Since the end of 2008, when the river diversion channel
of the Xiaowan hydropower dam was closed by Chinese engineers,
the reservoir has been filling with water, paving the way to
start the first electricity generating turbine in September.
When full, the reservoir will cover an area of over 190 square
kilometers. With a capacity to generate 4,200 megawatts of electricity,
Xiaowan will be the largest dam so far on the Mekong.
by 2014, China plans to finish another dam below the Xiaowan
at Nuozhadu. It will not be quite as high but will impound even
more water, nearly 23 billion cubic meters, and generate 5,000
megawatts of power.
officials have assured Southeast Asia that the Yunnan dams will
have a positive environmental impact. They say that by holding
some water back in the wet season, the dams will help control
flooding and river bank erosion downstream. Conversely, releases
from the hydropower reservoirs to generate power in the summer
will help ease water shortages in the lower Mekong during the
the UNEP-AIT report said that Cambodia’s great central
lake Tonle Sap, the nursery of the lower Mekong’s fish
stocks, and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, its rice bowl, were
particularly at risk from changes to the river’s unique
cycle of flood and drought. The Cambodian lake is linked to
the Mekong by the Tonle Sap River. Scientists are concerned
that reductions in the Mekong’s natural floodwater flow
will cause falls in the lake’s water level and fish stocks,
already under pressure from over-harvesting and pollution.
worries that dwindling water volumes will aggravate the problem
of sea water intrusion and salination in the low-lying Mekong
Delta, where climate change and sea level rise threaten to inundate
large areas of productive farm land and displace millions of
people by the end of this century.
MRC says it has been discussing technical cooperation with Chinese
experts to assess downstream river changes caused by hydropower
development. But China has refused to join the MRC or to agree
to observe its resource management guidelines, preferring to
remain a “dialogue partner”. Full membership would
intensify scrutiny of its dam plans by downstream Southeast
Asian states and increase pressure on Beijing, which controls
21 per cent of the water, to take their interests into account.
China’s program to dam the Mekong is moving ahead on schedule,
proposals to do the same on the Southeast Asian section of the
river have been put on hold. Before the global credit crisis
and economic slow-down hit Asia’s export-oriented economies
with full force this year, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand had announced
plans to follow China’s lead on the upper Mekong by building
a series of dams on the mainstream of the river in the lower
basin. There are now over 3,200 megawatts of electricity being
generated on Mekong tributaries in Laos. But that too is being
hurt by the crisis as Thailand, the main consumer of electricity
in the lower Mekong, has announced that because of the global
economic downturn, it expects to cut substantially the amount
of power it imports from Laos.
slowdown, however, provides a breathing space for Southeast
Asian countries to assess how the Mekong mainstream dam projects
will affect the interests of people in the river basin. But
without China’s full participation, no Mekong management
plan can be effective.
is intent on forging closer economic integration with mainland
Southeast Asia through trade, investment, communication, transport
and energy cooperation with its neighbors in the Greater Mekong
Subregion. But this strategy may backfire if the region concludes
that Chinese dams are having an adverse impact on their future
with permission from YaleGlobal Online --
(c) 2008 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization.
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