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ASIA: Mistrust Lingers as China Confronts Thorny Mekong Issues

BANGKOK, Apr 6 2010 (IPS) - Lost in the deluge of accusations that China’s dams are the culprit in the Mekong River’s unusually low levels is the fact that Beijing has actually become much less tightlipped about thorny issues with its neighbours than in the past.

Some years ago, China would have been unlikely to discuss such matters at a multilateral, official forum where it would be found fault with.

There was a time in the mid-nineties when just about the only response South-east Asian nations could get from China about the high-profile dispute at that time – the spat over the Spratly islands in the South China Sea – was a statement saying it wanted only bilateral fora to discuss it.

Those days are far different from China’s current diplomatic offensive in South-east Asia, as downstream Mekong communities angrily blame it for pushing the river to record low levels and exacerbating the worst drought they have seen in decades.

The sight of dry, cracked earth and sandy stretches of riverbed is now common in north-east Thailand and Laos down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. China’s south-west Yunnan province, where its Mekong dams are located, is itself hurting from the drought.

“It is as if the river has gone mad,” said Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in northern Thailand.

The resentment against China for the Mekong’s low levels rivals the anger that peaked in 2008, when downstream countries blamed it for record-high floods.

Indeed, the Mekong’s erratic behaviour is an emotional issue for the 65 million people who depend on it for survival. It is also a major public relations headache for China, which has a ‘good neighbour’ policy toward the countries it shares the Mekong with.

Seeing that the issue will not go away, China sent Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao to attend the two-day Mekong summit that ended in Hua Hin, Thailand on Apr. 5, one where the drought and China’s dams took the limelight.

China is not even a full member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), which groups the downstream countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. As an upstream country like Burma, China is an observer.

Song told the prime ministers of the Mekong countries that China’s three dams in the upper reaches of the river, which it calls Lancang, and a fourth that is in the reservoir-filling stage, were not bringing water to a trickle downstream.

He repeated Chinese officials’ statements that China is responsible for just 13.5 percent of the Mekong’s volume downstream and cannot possibly cause the impact being attributed to its dam projects. It is the drought that is drying up the Mekong, he said.

“Quite the contrary, by way of the regulating effect of the water dams, hydropower development of the Lancang River can improve navigation conditions and help with flood prevention, drought relief and farmland irrigation of the lower reaches,” Song said.

His words echo what Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue said when he visited Thailand in March: “China would not do anything to damage mutual interest with neighbouring countries in the Mekong.”

Yao Wen, first secretary at the Chinese embassy here, told a Mekong forum just before the Hua Hin summit that a few weeks ago, China released 5 million cubic metres of water from its dams to help ease the drought’s effects.

MRC Chief Executive Officer Jeremy Bird told the same forum: “We can’t say that the severe drought from this year is from dams in China.” MRC data show that there is decreased rainfall in the lower Mekong region – the last rainy season ended earlier than usual – as well as the lowest tributary flows in 50 years, Bird explains.

In March too, China said it would share “until the end of the drought” data on water movement from the Manwan and Jinghong dams in Yunnan. Until the downstream protests peaked, China only shared data about water releases in the flood season.

While Bird called this “very positive” news, critics say that what China should share is hydrological information from before Manwan, the first Lancang dam, was completed in 1995 in order to study changes in water levels.

They add that more than data about Manwan and Jinghong, what is key is how China is filling the Xiaowan dam, which is the most upstream of the Lancang dams and where most of the water would presumably be stored.

Set to be the world’s highest dam at 300 metres when it starts operation in 2012, critics suspect it plays a role in the Mekong’s low levels. Chinese officials have said they are filling the reservoir only during the wet season.

“But it isn’t rocket science to realise that those latter two stations (Manwan and Jinghong) alone provide essentially zero information as to how much water is presently being retained much further upstream to fill the new Xiaowan reservoir,” Alan Potkin of the Centre for South-east Asian Studies at Northern Illinois University said in a published commentary.

China’s difficulty in getting heard reflects a problem of trust, but it wants to avoid major damage to its ties with South-east Asian nations. After all, these countries, which used to see China as a threat, now view it as a friendly power.

“Perhaps this is the price of being a superpower, to have all your actions analysed and criticised,” remarked a Chinese journalist.

Witoon Permpongsacharoen of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network concedes that the Chinese seem more willing to engage these days, but says much remains to be seen. Chinese activists, he said, say that China works in different ways and that “it moves very slowly, but when it moves, it moves”.

But this matters little to those who are nervously watching the Mekong River they thought they knew.

“We cannot rely on governments, national and international organisations, high-level authorities, and all big bureaucrats to solve this Mekong crisis any more,” Niwat argued. “It is enough!”

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