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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

China Limited The Flow Of The Mekong. Other Countries Suffered A Drought

 Mekong River

BANGKOK – When China was hit by the coronavirus in late February, its foreign minister addressed a concerned crowd in Laos, where farmers and fishermen in the Mekong River region were facing the worst drought on record.

His message: We feel your pain. Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China also suffered from arid conditions that absorbed water from one of the most productive rivers in the world.

But new research by American climatologists shows for the first time that China, where the headwaters of the Mekong originate from the Tibetan plateau, was not experiencing the same difficulties. Instead, Beijing engineers appear to have directly caused record low water levels by limiting river flow.

"The satellite data does not lie, and there was a lot of water on the Tibetan plateau, even when countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme pressure," said Alan Basist, who co-wrote the report, which was published on Monday. Eyes on Earth, a water resources monitor.

"There was only a large volume of water retained in China," added Basist.

The Mekong is one of the most fertile rivers on earth, feeding tens of millions of people with its nutrient-rich waters and fisheries. But a series of dams, mainly in China, have stolen the river's wealth.

Those who depend on their inland fisheries say their catches have declined precipitously. Persistent droughts and flash floods have affected farmers.

 Mekong River

Beijing Control of the Mekong upstream, which provides up to 70 percent of the downstream water in the dry season, has caused discomfort, despite the Southeast Asian nations relying on trade with China. While the Chinese government has introduced a global development program that it says will benefit the poorest trading partners, a backlash is mounting among countries that feel they are losing.

"The problem is that the Chinese elite see water as something for their use, not as a shared product," said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center and author of "Last Days of the Mighty Mekong."

As China's geopolitical weight has grown, its leaders have viewed the nation as a different kind of superpower, one that is concerned, as the Chinese newsroom puts it, with "win-win,quot; relationships with other nations.

But some countries, such as Sri Lanka and Djibouti, have fallen into what critics fear are debt traps, as strategic projects end up in Chinese hands. Other African and Asian nations are concerned that China is simply another imperial power eager to suck up natural resources without worrying about the local population.

"This is part of China's commercial development," said Chainarong Setthachua, a professor and Mekong expert at Mahasarakham University in northeast Thailand. "Lay people who depend on the Mekong River resources for their livelihood and income are automatically excluded."

The data model created by Mr. Basist and his colleague Claude Williams measures the various components of a river's flow, from snow and glacial melt to rain and soil moisture. Scientists discovered that for most of the years, the natural and unhindered flow upstream of the Mekong roughly tracked the measured water levels downstream on a meter in Thailand, with occasional exceptions when reservoirs were filled or released in China.

When there was a seasonal drought in China, the five downstream nations – Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – would eventually feel it. When there was an excess of water in China, floods occurred in the Mekong Basin.

But during last year's rainy season, the fortunes of the two parts of the river diverged dramatically. Because the Chinese section of the Mekong received above-average water volumes, the downstream countries were affected by such a devastating drought that parts of the river dried up completely, leaving the cracked bed exposed in a season when fishing should have been abundant.

 Mekong River

At an indicator in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, water levels have never been so low before.

Overall, during the 28-year period that they studied this indicator, Mr. Basist and his colleague calculated that dams in China had retained more than 410 feet of river height.

While addressing regional foreign ministers in February, Wang, China's foreign minister, argued that China was also suffering. He suggested that the Chinese leadership was being magnanimous in sending water downstream, especially at a time when Beijing was facing a serious outbreak of coronavirus.

"Although China has also been affected by drought and a severe shortage of rainfall in the upper reaches, it has overcome several difficulties in increasing water discharge," he said.

Mr. Basist disputed this take.

"You look at our mapping, and it's bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red due to the extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia," he said. "China can regulate the flow of this river through dams, and that appears to be exactly what it is doing."

In addition to the downstream pain, there were sudden releases of water from China, which often came without warning and drowned crops that had been planted near banks due to drought.

"China's release of water is political," said Chainarong of Mahasarakham University. "It is made to be them doing a favor. They create harm, but ask for gratitude."

While the Mekong is a lifesaver for residents of downstream nations, the river rushes through narrow gorges in China, making it impractical for economic activity other than hydropower. At the beginning of this century, the Chinese government, whose leadership at the time was dominated by engineers, began to accelerate plans to dam the Lancang, as the Mekong is known in China.

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the southwest of the nation is marked by 11 main dams, which produce much more energy than the region needs. Other large rivers that start in the icy reaches of the Tibetan plateau, such as the Brahmaputra, a river sacred to Hindus in India, was also dammed in China.

Existing excess energy was one of the reasons why Chinese environmentalists managed to persuade the government to set aside plans to dam another river in the region, the Nu, which becomes the Salween when it enters Myanmar.

However, even when Beijing started boosting its hydroelectric power in the Mekong, it refused to join Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in a regional group dedicated to the health of the river. In a survey commissioned by the group, the Mekong River Commission, scientists warned that a dam boom in the Mekong could rob the river of 97 percent of the sediment that flows to its mouth in Vietnam.

"The river will be dead," said Niwat Roykaew, a community organizer and conservationist in northern Thailand.

Instead, Beijing created its own Lancang-Mekong cooperation initiative and financed a luxurious building for the group in Cambodia, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has firmly brought the country into Beijing's orbit. Critics accuse the Beijing-funded initiative of being less of a mechanism to protect the river and more of a spokesman for China's campaign on the Mekong.

Even Mr. Hun Sen, the oldest autocrat in Asia, appears to have been rocked by the devastating lack of water in the Mekong, which accelerated last July. The energy ministry announced last month that Cambodia was suspending plans for dams on the Mekong, which would have been mainly financed by China.

Meanwhile, China's water reserves increased as the dam's reservoirs filled with the glacial melt that has fed the Mekong for millennia.

"Glaciers are bank water accounts, but with climate change they are melting fast," said Basist. "The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes in the upper Mekong because they know that the bank account will eventually run out and they want to keep it in reserve."

Muktita Suhartono contributed reports.

[ By The New York Times ]

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