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Mekong Issue Muddied by China: Experts

The recent drought across southern China and mainland Southeast Asia has caused debate within the region regarding dam issues in the Mekong River Basin. But as the facts are disputed over why there are record-low water levels in the basin, experts say China should share more information.

Richard Cronin heads the Southeast Asia program at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington and is lead author of a recent report about the dangers of damming the Mekong, on which 60 million people depend.

He says countries in the region need to push China to share more information about its management of the Upper Mekong, as the river is facing its lowest water levels in 50 years.

“Right now the situation is it’s dry, everybody’s dry,” he told VOA Khmer. “Everybody is suffering a water shortage, but the question is the Chinese don’t tell us how they’re operating these dams and reservoirs. They don’t tell us whether they’re letting everything go through or whether they’re holding some back, or maybe they even have water in the reservoir that they’re letting through to help their neighbors downstream. We simply don’t know because there’s no transparency.”

The release of the report, “Mekong Tipping Point,” came as a severe drought hit Southeast Asia and southern China, and a first major summit was held by the countries of the Mekong River Commission, which comprises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The lack of information from China has fueled accusations and suspicion from farmers and fishermen in these Lower Mekong countries that Chinese dams are contributing to the low water levels.

The report warns that failure to fully disclose information between six countries sharing the 4,880-kilometer river makes solving the problems difficult.

The report says getting Burma and China to become full members of the MRC will ensure greater participation and obligations and will strengthen the MRC and help promote transparency in the river’s management.

But making China share more information about its water use will require a stronger MRC, says Pek Koon Heng, director of the newly-established Asean Studies Center at American University.

She says the recent drought has encouraged cooperation and political will among MRC countries to approach China more directly. She said support from non-Mekong Asean countries—Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore—could greatly boost the efforts of the MRC countries, who are also Asean members.

“A common Asean position will give more weight to the MRC countries and bring the full force of Asean behind these negotiations and these discussions in the way that the South China Sea, Spratly Islands and Paracel Islands disputes with China and Asean took a common position,” she said.

Asean “got China to a certain code of conduct. So I think that’s why Asean should think about developing a code of conduct for water management in the Mekong,” she said.

Better cooperation between Asean countries is an important supplement to dependence on the limited role of the United States in the region, experts say.

The US launched the Lower Mekong Initiative in 2009 to better work with the four MRC countries, a plan that included the creation of a “sister river” partnership between the Mekong River Commission and the Mississippi River Commission.

But the new program still lacks a lot of concrete activities, and the US role in Mekong water management will likely be limited to training experts and helping Mekong countries work together better, Cronin said.

Senator Jim Webb, a Democrat from Virginia, told participants at the report launch in Washington that from an American perspective, the solution should involve the international community because its effects are comparable to other regional problems.

“[It’s] a very serious issue,” he said. “It is international in scope. It affects tens of millions of people.”

Cronin agrees, warning that failure of the smaller of the six Mekong countries to work together creates a political disadvantage against China.

“What China wants to do, I think, is it wants to make bilateral arrangements with Laos, with Cambodia especially, separately,” he said. “Because they don’t want to deal with a group of countries.”

Heng, nevertheless, remains hopeful. She says the realization of leaders from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam about the need to work closer together and China’s release of more data at the recent MRC summit are good signs.

She says such momentum will eventually put the Mekong issue on the agenda of an Asean summit later this year.