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No great hopes for China's Mekong release

The Jinghong dam on the Mekong river in China, seen last year, started releasing water on March 15 and will continue until April 10. International River
The Jinghong dam on the Mekong river in China, seen last year, started releasing water on March 15 and will continue until April 10. International River

No great hopes for China's Mekong release

Though praised by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China’s release of Mekong River water from the Jinghong dam on March 15 is unlikely to bring much relief to downstream countries like Cambodia, water experts said yesterday.

The impact of increased flow volume diminishes with distance and Cambodia is thousands of kilometres downstream from the Jinghong dam, said Bun Hean, the secretary of state at the Kingdom’s Ministry of Water Resources and Meteorology.

“If the volume [of discharge] at the dam is 100 per cent, we will maybe see 10 per cent,” said Hean. While this will not be enough to alleviate the water shortages across multiple provinces, he added, “it is better than 0 per cent”.

The dam will stay open until April 10, according to China. Mekong River Commission spokesman Sopheak Meas said yesterday that the increased flow can be expected to reach Kratie in three weeks’ time.

The conservation group Three Rivers Protection Network on Sunday stated that the biggest beneficiaries of the discharge will be Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, as they are closer to the dam.

Vietnam, which is facing its worst water shortages and crop failures in close to a century, according to the MRC, had been requesting for China to increase the Mekong’s flow in recent months.

Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Lu Kang, described the discharge as a way to help the Mekong countries cope with the El Niño droughts during this dry season.

But Ian Thomas, a technical adviser with the MRC, said that the latest discharge is no different from regularly scheduled discharges in the past.

China simply decided to frame this one as an act of aid, he said. “It’s nice of them, but they tend to do that anyway this time of year,” said Thomas.

The bigger reason for the discharge was to enable Chinese boats that go downstream to trade to return to China, according to Pianporn Deetes, a campaign coordinator for Thailand-based NGO International Rivers.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asian relations added that this move allows China to try to justify its dams, which are viewed with suspicion by its neighbours on the Mekong.

“Ever since China dammed up the upper Mekong, it said it would regulate the water downstream, and that’s been debatable,” said Thayer. “If China wants to have interests in mainland Southeast Asia, this is a win-win for them … China is opportunistic; it’s quite simple.”

Thomas said that dams alter the Mekong’s flow, making it less likely that the Tonle Sap lake will flood. Farmers living around the lake depend on the periodic flooding to grow crops.

Furthermore, with Thailand’s water diversion project having already started last month, Cambodia’s portion of the Mekong will shrink as the Thai plan – which is set to siphon off at least 47 million cubic metres of water – gathers momentum, according to Thomas.

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