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US report: Chinese dams to blame for record-low Mekong water levels

Harrison White / Khmer Times Share:
Local fishing communities along the Mekong reported 70 percent lower fish hauls in 2019, according to expert Brian Eyler. KT/Khem Sovannara

An American project studying water flows of the Mekong River over 28 years has concluded that a series of recently built upstream Chinese dams have directly caused the record-low levels of water in downstream Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The report, funded by America’s Department of State, outlined that huge volumes of water have been deliberately diverted by Chinese engineers to be used for future water distribution for China’s own hydroelectric power plants. While this will facilitate a stable output through the plants’ annual cycle, it will devastate regional businesses that are dependent on healthy river flows.

Titled “Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing through the Upper Mekong Basin under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions,” and authored by American researchers Alan Basist and Claude Williams, data was based on satellite observations and daily river-height gauges at Chiang Saen in Thailand between 1992 to 2019.

An algorithm (created by the pair) used to translate this data into a “land surface wetness index”, showed that over a period of nearly 30 years, the equivalent of 126 metres of river height has been held back by Chinese-built dams.

The report also highlights that the relationship between the recorded gauge height and the satellite-derived estimates grew substantially after 2012, when Huaneng Hydrolancang International Energy, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, built a series of dams which greatly restricted the amount and timing of water released from the upper to the lower Mekong.

“These dams greatly expand institutional capacity to regulate the river flow, with corresponding impacts downstream that need to be addressed through holistic solutions,” the report said.

“The additional six dams built since the commissioning of the Nuozhadu Dam in 2012 are compounding the alteration of natural river flow as the reservoirs are filled and water is released. One of greatest consequences this caused last year was when the Lower Mekong recorded some of its lowest river levels ever throughout most of 2011,” the report added.

In response to the report, Khmer Times spoke directly with the Mekong River Commission (MRC) about the findings who responded that they did not believe there was enough “technical” evidence in the report to determine the actual hydrological condition of the river.

“Technically speaking, more observed data from different monitoring stations across the basin is required to validate these findings. For us, the study appears to present its analysed results [using the algorithm], rather than fact; the actual state of what is actually happening on the ground,” the commission said.

It further added that MRC members (which includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam) need to work with China and that as an MRC dialogue partner, while this has been strengthened in recent times, more needs to be done to establish a more formal working relationship.

“China has provided its water level and rainfall data only during the flood season and from only two out its many stations on the upper Mekong. This is not sufficient. The MRC would like China to provide more data that covers more stations and includes the dry season, too. Again, for forecasting to be fast and accurate, and timely mitigation measures to be taken, year-round data from various sources is necessary,” the commission said.

“The MRC has attempted to acquire dry-season data from China, but no agreement has yet been reached,” the commission added.

While the current debate on the cause of the record-low river levels continues, there is no question of the devastating effect it is having on local farming and fishing businesses for all MRC members, with Cambodia being particularly affected.

Brian Eyler, a prominent spokesperson on the Mekong River and the author of Last Days of the Mighty Mekong has previously spoken out about the crisis and stated that the river provides Cambodians with between 60 and 70 percent of their annual protein intake. But he also added that last year, local fishing communities reported 70 percent lower fish hauls when compared to previous years and that despite very high rainfall last year, the lower Mekong has remained stubbornly dry.

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