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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: China Flexes Hydropower Muscle

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 27 2010 (IPS) - After all the turbines in the Xiaowan hydropower station sputtered to life this week in China’s south-west Yunnan province, the Asian giant was able to lay claim to having the world’s largest hydropower capacity.

A “great leap forward” was how Liu Qi, deputy director of the National Energy Administration, described the expanding hydropower muscle of the country, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.

“The rapid development of the hydropower industry is of great significance to optimising China’s energy structure and reducing carbon emissions,” Sun Yucai, executive vice chairman of the China Electricity Council, said in the same report.

The 700,000-kilowatt scheme of the Xiaowan power station is expected to push China’s installed hydropower capacity to 200 million kilowatts, Xinhua reported. The country’s second largest hydropower project, which cost 5.86 billion U.S. dollars, can “produce 19 billion KW hours of electricity every year, it added.

This power station will receive water from another showpiece of Chinese power: the Xiaowan dam, the world’s tallest double-arch dam with a storage capacity of close to 15 billion cubic metres.

The Xiaowan is the fourth dam that the Chinese have built out among a planned eight cascades of dams in the upper part of the Mekong River – which the Chinese call the Lancang – that flows through the mountainous Yunnan terrain. The Xiaowan Dam began impounding the Mekong’s waters in October 2009, nearly two decades after the Manwan, the first among these dams, started to harness the waters of the 4,660-kilometre-long river.


But China’s celebration of its dam-building feats, coming nearly 100 years after it built its first hydropower station near Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan, will not be shared by countries in the lower stretches of the Mekong, say activists.

Many downstream communities have been reporting erratic water levels in the Mekong and blame this on China’s construction of dams on the Lancang.

Following drops to the river’s lowest levels in 50 years, green groups and sections of the media blamed the Chinese dams – particularly the Xiaowan – for affecting the livelihood of riverine villages in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

A Chinese government effort in March to explain that these were due to a severe drought did little to ease the worries of villagers who depend on the river’s ecosystem and fish catch for an income.

Fishing is the main source of livelihood for the 60 million people living in the Mekong basin, and the annual income from fisheries in the lower Mekong is between two to three billion U.S. dollars.

“Many people living in the lower Mekong region will still believe that the filling of the Xiaowan dam reservoir contributes to a drop in the water level during the dry season,” says Ame Trandem, Mekong campaigner for International Rivers, an U.S.-based environmental lobby. “It will remain so until the Chinese make public all the information related to its dam operations.”

China’s offer of some information about its dams to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is insufficient, she told IPS. “China has been taking positive steps to be cooperative by releasing some details. But it still needs to be willing to be more accountable and transparent, since local communities have not seen the information given to the MRC.”

The MRC, an inter-governmental organisation whose members include Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, says China’s dams do not have the capacity to influence water levels all the way downstream, because much of the Mekong’s waters come from lower basin countries. “The MRC doesn’t anticipate that the Xiaowan dam will have a significant influence downstream on the lower Mekong,” says MRC spokesman Damian Kean, echoing views that the Vientiane-based organisation aired when the Chinese dams were under fire early this year.

But “later on, as more and more dams come online, you are going to see a greater impact,” he told IPS from the Lao capital. “All the lower Mekong countries want to see the right decision being made in this sector.”

At the same time, China is well aware that the impact of its dams on the Mekong – which flows from the Tibetan plateau, through Yunnan, then passes Burma before snaking its way through the basin to empty out into the South China Sea in southern Vietnam – is not limited to the countries that share South-east Asia’s largest body of water.

Since July, Beijing has also had to contend with the U.S. government, which has been reviving Washington’s involvement in the region after the disengagement by the administration of George W Bush.

In fact, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s push for greater cooperation between Washington and the Mekong basin countries during a visit to Thailand in July 2009 spurred warnings from U.S. experts about the danger that China’s hydropower ambitions pose to other Mekong countries.

China’s dam plans will turn the Mekong into a “Chinese River”, warned Richard Cronin, the South-east Asian head of the U.S.-based Stimson Centre, in Bangkok this month.

In an August article, the Washington-based ‘Foreign Policy’ publication urged the U.S. government to step into the fray. “Washington’s willingness to get involved in the Mekong River dispute could create an almost perfect counterweight to China’s strategy,” wrote John Lee, visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington D.C.

For now, Beijing’s response to growing U.S. criticism is to pursue ‘soft power’ diplomacy, says a regional analyst. “China wants to assure governments in the lower Mekong that they have nothing to fear.”

 
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