Washed down the Mekong?

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 July, 2004, 12:00am

The massive Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze River has inspired thousands of news stories and become a 'must see' site for tourists. In contrast, Chinese dams being built along the Mekong River - including one at Xiaowan which will be more than 100 metres higher than the Three Gorges - have attracted almost no publicity, even though their economic and environmental impact is likely to make them a major multilateral issue between China and its southern neighbours.

The Mekong is Southeast Asia's largest river system, running some 4,160km from its source in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. It differs from the Yangtze in that it is a major international waterway: the downstream Southeast Asian countries depend heavily on access to healthy, predictable flows of the Mekong.

For Thailand, the river is a vital source of water for cities. For Laos, it is a potential source of hydroelectricity for export. Cambodia needs the river to sustain its fish catch. Vietnam needs a high and constant flow of water to irrigate its rice fields in the delta. But downstream countries cannot guarantee the continued flow of the Mekong without the help of their large northern neighbour in whose territory the river originates: China. Twenty per cent of the waters of the Mekong originate in China, and during the dry season this figure increases to as much as 70 per cent.

China, facing massive water shortages of its own, has stonewalled. It has avoided making any concessions on water use, has not slowed the pace of dam building, and continues to argue that how it uses water which flows through its territory is a question of national sovereignty.

This is bad news both for the downstream countries and for regional integration. This year, record low flows along the Mekong killed the fish catch in Cambodia, created water shortages in Thailand, and led to salt intrusion in Vietnamese rice fields. While low rainfall made the situation worse, Chinese dams along the upper portions of the river were also blamed. Two such dams are in place; two more are being built, and four more are on the drawing board.

Beijing has been trumpeting its 'theory of peaceful rise', which argues that economic growth and increasing military power will not threaten its Southeast Asian neighbours, but instead will create a 'win-win' situation in which all countries can benefit.

But Chinese actions towards the Mekong have not matched these words. While Beijing has initiated programmes to enhance navigability on the river to facilitate trade, and agreed to share technical data on water flows, it has not made any concessions on the fundamental issue of water access and use.

If China wants to walk the walk of regional co-operation instead of merely talking the talk, it could take several clear steps:

First, it could join the Mekong River Commission, an international non-governmental organisation - of which Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are members - which facilitates co-operation and information exchange on the river. Second, China could give the downstream states a voice on the future construction of dams. Third, to share the benefits generated by Chinese demand for electricity, it might even forgo one of its own dams to help build one in Laos and then buy back the electricity as an import. Finally, China could even become visionary and lead a multilateral effort to put a water-sharing agreement into place.

In the absence of such steps, the downstream countries will suffer significant economic harm, and Chinese claims of a 'peaceful rise' are likely to fall on deaf ears.

Alex Liebman, a PhD candidate in Harvard University's department of government, is a research assistant at the Institute for National Strategic Studies at National Defence University in Washington. This article reflects the author's personal opinion, not necessarily that of the US government