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“The Mekong is Dying”: How China’s River Diplomacy Neglects Locals, Exacerbates Climate Change

File image of the aerial view of the Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese part of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture, southwest China's Yunnan province. Imaginechina Limited / Alamy Stock Photo

The rainy season would usually start in May, but this was late June and it was still not raining much. Niwat Roykaew, who grew up on the bank of the Mekong River in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province, noticed. 

Born and raised in the Chiang Khong district, Roykaew, 63, was taught to observe the Mekong River to tell the season. But, in the past two decades, the river has become unpredictable like it has “pulsated out of tune”.

Niwat Roykaew is a Thai activist who campaigns for China to share data about water restrictions by its dams upstream.

“The water would get high for two days, then on the third day it would suddenly drop, even during the rainy season,” said Roykaew. 

Local residents like him knew that this delay could mean another year of drought. Since at least 2019, that’s what has happened: the monsoon rain is late, and when it comes, it departs early.

The Mekong River’s water levels in the lower basin, including in Thailand, are now very unstable, being heavily affected both by climate change and hydropower dams upstream that are mostly powered by China, according to local residents, activists, and experts.

The China-backed hydropower dams, which were built to meet the rising need of electricity in the region, have at times restricted water, intensifying drought and in turn, contributed to lower food production for the Mekong countries. 

China’s control of water upstream has also led to the unpredictable rise and fall of the Mekong River’s water level downstream, which disrupts the ecosystem in the most devastating ways, threatening birds and fish life cycles. 

“When these disruptions are felt, it is a sign that the Mekong is dying,” said Roykaew. 

The great Mekong River stretches through six countries: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Covering a distance of nearly 5,000 kilometers from its source on the Tibetan Plateau to the Mekong Delta, the river’s aquatic biodiversity is only second in the world after the Amazon. 

The river has long been an integral part of rice and fish cultivation for the surrounding communities. A few decades ago, China began to lead the development of hydropower dams along the river to produce electricity. 

China opened its first dam on the Mekong River (or locally known as the Lancang River) –  called the Manwan dam in Yunnan Province – in 1993. Today, China operates 11 dams along the mainstream in the Upper Mekong Basin and 95 tributary dams within its territory. It also invests in multiple hydropower projects in the basin. In the Lower Mekong Basin, there are nearly 130 commissioned dams backed by various countries including China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia, among others.

In mid-June, six of China’s 11 mainstream dams restricted nearly one billion cubic meters of water to fill their reservoirs, according to the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank that monitors the Mekong’s dams. These restrictions were believed to be exacerbating already low rainfall induced by El Nino, a warming of water surface temperatures in the eastern and central Pacific Ocean.

Courtney Weatherby, deputy director for Southeast Asia at the Stimson Center, said storage dams begin to restrict water during the wet season in order to have enough water to produce electricity throughout the dry season. This is why at times of drought, “the impacts of dam restrictions are more obvious and have relatively more influence on the flood pulse’s strength or weakness,” Weatherby said. 

Biodiversity, Food Security Threatened

In Thailand, the Mekong River runs along the 940-kilometer border area, mostly with Laos, to the east side of the riverbank. The Thai section starts in the area called the Golden Triangle, which is also Roykaew’s home in Chiang Rai before zigzagging into Cambodia.

Omboon Tipsuna, a Thai activist based in Nong Khai province on the bank of the Mekong River, said that the effects of water restrictions upstream are felt in many aspects of the local community’s life, humans’ and animals’ alike. For example, inconsistent water levels would confuse animals about their breeding season, including the barbs – a type of freshwater fish. 

As a result, “[the fish] can be caught by fishermen before they breed in a year,” Tipsuna explained. “Less fish in the Mekong means fishers use electrofishing, which threatens the fish population even further.”

Work and leisure habits have also changed. Residents have stopped growing vegetables in winter when the water levels used to be low because, since 2013, off-season high currents have drowned all the plants, Tipsuna said. “Many communities enjoy boat racing in the Mekong for sport, but, in Nong Khai, residents withdrew in some years due to low water levels,” she added. 

With more than a thousand fish species, the Mekong River is the largest freshwater fishery in the world, with up to 2.6 million tonnes of fish caught annually. But, that abundance is now being threatened by the rapid water structures development, according to a report by the intergovernmental organization Mekong River Commission (MRC).

Some of the world’s largest freshwater species that can be found in the river have become much rarer, including the 200-kilogram Mekong giant catfish, giant barb, giant pangasius, giant stingray, and the Irrawaddy dolphin, which are now numbering just under a hundred in the Mekong section in northeastern Cambodia, an area that seems to be its last refuge in the world. 

Another study showed that the number of fish species in the Sesan and Srepok Basins in Cambodia has been declining since 2007. The number of fish species only increased in the Sekong Basin where there are fewest dams. In Vietnam’s An Giang province in the Mekong Delta, the wild freshwater fish catch was recorded at over 90,000 tonnes in 2000, then fell to well below 15,000 tonnes two decades later, forcing many fishers to abandon their livelihoods. 

Rice production is also impacted due to the shortage of water from the upper Mekong River. In 2020, nearly 42,000 hectares of the winter-spring rice crop in provinces in the Mekong Delta were affected; of which 26,000 hectares of rice ended in dead loss. 

Farmers in the Mekong Delta contribute over 50% of the country’s rice production and 90% of rice exports, making Vietnam one of the world’s biggest rice producers. 

Negotiating Solutions With China

When China’s upstream dams restrict or release water, water levels change off-season, causing the people living around the area caught off-guard. Data sharing could be one of the solutions China could provide to help local communities prepare for upcoming water levels – though it’s something that China has been reluctant to do, according to experts. 

Roykaew, the local Thailand’s Mekong resident, has repeatedly called on China to share more data, or at least notify communities downstream about the details of the water restrictions. Roykaew said the climate crisis indeed has a hand in changing the Mekong River, but he also warned that the way China operates its dams upstream is only worsening those effects.

“We want a participatory process where there are talks about how and when the water will be restricted, for example, what is the most suitable means of water restrictions in the rainy season,” Roykaew said. 

Roykaew is an award-winning environmental activist who successfully halted the China-led Upper Mekong River rapids blasting project in 2020. The project — meant to deepen navigation channels for Chinese cargo ships traveling downstream — would have destroyed about 400 kilometers of the Mekong River. 

In 2016, China attempted to respond to the Mekong issue by launching the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation. The initiative was described as “top-down,” and “state-centric, all-round cooperation, and development-first” by Hoang Thi Ha, a senior fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, in her November 2022 paper. 

LMC was meant “to ensure a stable and friendly periphery and to counter US criticism and securitization of Chinese cascade dam-building,” Hoang wrote. Unfortunately, its economic development-first approach often gives limited opportunity to the public to participate and even suppresses the voices of local communities who have been more vocal on the Mekong’s environmental problems and the impact on their livelihoods, the paper said. 

Gregory Poling, a director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington believed that some of the Mekong countries, like Laos and Cambodia, have no leverage in their relations with China at the moment. 

“Given its level of debt distress, Laos is on the edge of sovereign default and kept afloat only by China’s largess,” Poling said. “China is also the largest trader, investor, and source of development assistance for Cambodia, and the source of the patronage of Hun Sen’s regime.”

Meanwhile, Thailand and Vietnam might have more room to maneuver. Despite China’s little interest in being more transparent about its upstream dams or coordinating more closely to alleviate the negative effects for those downstream, the two countries would certainly like to see more cooperation on managing the river, Poling said. 

Currently, China shares the dam operations schedules with the MRC, but “it solves nothing,” according to Roykaew. “China still controls everything,” the Thai activist said.

Jitsiree Thongnoi is a journalist based in Bangkok, Thailand. She focuses on politics, social equity and China’s role in Southeast Asia.

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