Asia’s water woes are worsening. Already the world’s driest continent in per capita terms, Asia now faces a severe drought that has parched a vast region extending from southern Vietnam to central India. This has exacerbated political tensions, because it has highlighted the impact of China’s dam-building policy on the environment and on water flows to the dozen countries located downstream.
A major new study warns that a planned cascade of hydropower dams along the Mekong River could cause “very high adverse effects on some of the key sectors and environmental resources in Cambodia and Viet Nam.”
Viet Nam’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment has just publicly released “Study on the Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower on the Mekong River”, also known as the “Delta Study.” The study used models to simulate various dam construction scenarios. And the results raise alarm bells for the over 60 million people who rely on the Mekong Delta for their livelihoods.
Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday disputed the idea that water shortages along the Mekong River have been exacerbated by two massive hydropower dams being developed by Laos, saying the drought currently afflicting much of mainland Southeast Asia was caused only by “the sky.”
China will release more water from a dam in its southwestern province of Yunnan to help alleviate a drought in parts of Southeast Asia, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday, following an initial release begun last month.
In a remote corner of southwestern China, close to the Myanmar border, the towering Nu River gorge narrows to a frothy boil of rushing water, its powerful flow creating swirling eddies.
Thrown across the river from one rock face to the other hangs a flimsy suspension bridge. “No entrance” reads a sign on its locked and rusting gate. “For construction only.”
The abandoned bridge is the sole hint here of a lengthy environmental battle that may be nearing its end. For more than a decade, activists have fought a state-owned hydropower company’s plans to build giant dams on the Nu, the last natural river in China. Now, dam opponents say they scent victory.
Research commissioned by Vietnam has warned of devastating environmental and economic effects for millions of people living along the Mekong River if 11 proposed dams are built on its mainstream.
It’s not just humans but also animals downstream who are affected every time water is released from Chinese dams into the Mekong River.
“The survival rate of baby birds has dropped to less than 60% over the past three years, as their nests lie on the riverfront and the water level of the Mekong is so unpredictable,” lamented the administrator of a Facebook page devoted to bird lovers.
POWER-PLANT projects that could generate up to 30,778 megawatts, proposed in the Power Development Plan 2015, have shown up in the city-planning exemption list announced by the National Energy Policy Council, raising concern among environmental activists over unregulated development.
Thursday’s announcement also includes alternative power projects under the Alternative Energy Development Plan 2015 and LNG (liquefied natural gas) station and receiving-terminal projects under the Gas Plan 2015.
The controversial Mae Wong Dam in Nakhon Sawan is also on the list appended to the announcement.
Surachai Trongngam, secretary-general of the Environmental Litigation and Advocacy for the Wants Foundation, said the announcement was clarification of a previous National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) order, 4/2559, and gave more specific information on which projects were being included in the city-law exemption list.
China’s pattern of regional conduct has come increasingly into focus in recent times. Its behaviour is much less about maintaining the ‘status quo’, and much more about revising the established dynamics and contours in the region to its preferences. This revisionism is likely to become the primary source of tensions and potential conflict in Southeast Asia.
A view of the dam at the Jinghong Hydropower Station on the Lancang River, the Chinese section of the Mekong River, in Jinghong city, Yunnan province, 20 May 2013. (Photo: AAP).
Nowhere are China’s revisionist aims more evident than in the South China Sea and the upper reaches of the Mekong River, which straddles southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The UN special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia met with Stung Treng Governor Mom Saroen yesterday to discuss the plight of ethnic minorities in the province affected by the Lower Sesan 2 dam project.
Special rapporteur Rhona Smith is in Cambodia on a 10-day visit focusing on women’s and indigenous people’s rights, and on Sunday met with villagers in Sesan district’s Kbal Romea commune.
According to indigenous rights activist Ngach Samin, who was at Sunday’s meeting, the villagers revealed a litany of complaints, primarily focused on their scheduled resettlement to make way for the Lower Sesan 2 dam.
Again?” Chai Tamuen, 42, thought when he saw Mekong water rising at the riverbank of Chiang Khan district in Loei eight days ago.
Overnight, water had engulfed the sandy shore of Kaeng Khut Khu, a tourist spot popular for swimming and recreation, leaving stalls stranded on an “island” now surrounded by water.
As a vendor, Mr Chai was forced to leave his kiosk four days later when water submerged half of the island.
“This is not the first time that the bank has been flooded in dry season. It’s happened like this for the last five years,” he said.
“We can’t predict water. Our income has not been stable since Chinese dams have taken control over the water upstream.”
China announced on March 14 it would discharge a massive quantity of water from one of its dams, claiming it would help communities in the Mekong region facing severe drought.
China’s slowing economy would not seem a good time to scrap hydroelectric dam projects. That would seem especially so in southwest Yunnan’s Nu River valley, among the nation’s poorest regions. Yet provincial authorities have decided to put the way of life of villagers and the environment first by calling a halt to small-scale schemes. It is a hopeful sign for those in the area and downstream in Myanmar and Thailand who rely on the waters for their livelihoods.
The valley is a Unesco World Heritage site included for its scenery and biodiversity, accounting for 6,000 different types of plants and half of China’s animal and fish species. Plans in 2004 for a 13-dam cascade to be built in the upper reaches of the Nu were shelved under pressure the following year, but revived in 2013 on a lesser scale with an eye on meeting national renewal energy targets. The province’s Communist Party chief, Li Jiheng, said earlier this month that projects for coal mines and small hydro plants beside the river and on tributaries would not go ahead. In five to 10 years, with vegetation restored, the valley would be a tourist attraction rivaling the US’ Grand Canyon.