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Asia-Pacific
Mekong waters hit record low
Villagers downstream blame Chinese dams as vital Asian river slows to a trickle.
Last Modified: 08 Mar 2010 10:32 GMT
The livelihoods of 60 million people is threatened by falling water levels on the Mekong [Reuters]

Thailand's prime minister has said he will seek urgent talks with China after the water level in the Mekong River plunged to its lowest level in 20 years.

The river, which has its source in China, underpins the livelihoods of more than 60 million people in Southeast Asia.

In video


Al Jazeera's Aela Callan reports on problems downstream attributed to dams in China

Speaking on Sunday, Abhisit Vejjajjiva said it had become obvious that the low water levels were threatening communities along the river and he had asked foreign ministry officials to meet with Chinese representatives as soon as possible.

"We'll ask China to help manage the water flow along the river better so countries in Southeast Asia would not be affected," the Thai prime minister said in his weekly television address.
 
China has planned eight hydroelectric dams on the upper stretches of the Mekong, four of which have already been built, and many farmers and fishermen who depend on the river have blamed China for the falling water levels.

Fisherman have reported dramatically falling catches, while cargo boats have been grounded and farmer have seen crops fail as vital irrigation sources dry up.

Drought

Environmental groups have long blamed China for shrinking the Mekong and causing other ecological damage by building dams.

China denies that damming of the river is the source of the problems downstream [EPA]

Chinese officials however have denied that the damming of the river is responsible for problems further downstream.

In a statement to Al Jazeera on Monday the International Regional Cooperation Office of China's southern Yunnan Province said the dams "have very limited impact on the Mekong" while a severe drought had reduced the amount of water reaching the river.

The statement said China accounted for less than 14 per cent of the Mekong's water, while over 80 per cent comes from Laos and other countries.

"The Chinese government gives its full consideration to the downstream nations; we have very strict environmental evaluation for the dams to ensure the amount of the water and the quality of the water," it said.

"This year, there's been a severe drought in Yunnan province in China where the upstream Mekong passes through; the water level has been low because of climate change but not the building of the dams."

Urgent talks

The issue has become an urgent topic at the Mekong River Commission, a regional body which brings together Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to oversee the management of the river.

China is not a member, but attended talks on the issue last week with the commission in the Lao town of Luang Prabang.

Andrew Walker, a senior fellow at the Department of Political and Social Change at the Australian National University, told Al Jazeera he believes the Chinese dams have little impact on the current low water levels in the Mekong.

He said it is difficult to give the exact impact of the hydroelectric dams because the dams were used to store water during the wet season and to release that water during the dry season to generate electricity.

"There might be some minor fluctuations given the balance between dam filling and release, in comparison to the effect of the very low rainfall throughout the region over the past year," he told Al Jazeera.

"Water shortages in the dry season in Southeast Asia are not unusual at all," he added.

Chinese dams

But Witoon Permpongsarcheren, the director of the Mekong Energy and Ecology Network who has been working on Mekong issues for nearly 20 years, said the situation downstream depends on how much water is released from China's dams.

"Upward of the Golden Triangle there are no main tributaries from Laos... so whatever is happening with the flow at the Golden Triangle is almost 100 per cent from China"

Witoon Permpongsarcheren, director Mekong Energy and Ecology Network

"This, apart from the drought and also the management of the dams, will have a tremendous effect on what's going on now."

Witoon said the 16 or 18 per cent of water reported as coming only from China refers to the volume that is released into the South China Sea all-year round.

"Actually 100 per cent of the water [downstream] comes from China because upward of the Golden Triangle there are no main tributaries from Laos," he told Al Jazeera from Bangkok.

"So whatever is happening with the flow at the Golden Triangle is almost 100 per cent from China."

Witoon said it was time the six Mekong countries worked towards closer co-operation.

"They need to come together to discuss how they can release information and how they establish institutional regulations that follow the international river laws," he said.

"There might also be a need to review all of the dams [that have been] planned along the Mekong mainstream not only in China but also downstream."

Source:
Al Jazeera and agencies
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