The Mekong River Commission’s (MRC) annual report, published 16 June, includes a noteworthy statement calling for increased transparency from China over upstream dam operations on the river. The Mekong is Southeast Asia's longest river and acts as a lifeline to 60 million people.
Downtream Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam all suffered severe drought in 2019 as the river fell to record lows while upstream dams in China reportedly held "above-average natural flow”, withholding water and compounding the drought.
MRC notes that China has previously agreed to continue providing water-level and rainfall data to the Commission during flood season, starting from June 1 until October 31, every year for five years. This near real-time data provided by China, MRC says, has enabled downstream Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam to strengthen river water-level monitoring and improve the accuracy of flood forecasting as well as mitigate the negative effects of flooding.
The Commission then goes on to say that “While the MRC appreciates China’s sharing of the data during the flood season, it has always expressed the need to have all year-round data for effective monitoring and reporting on flood and drought, and on other emerging hydrological changes”.
China was accused in an April 2020 study of restricting water flow from 11 upstream dams, affecting approximately 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong where agriculture and fishing are the principal sources of support. Ordinarily, seasonal drought in China eventually becomes a seasonal drought in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, while abundant water in China causes floods in the Mekong basin, as water is released from dams.
The study described China’s upper basin as having high rainfall and snowmelt while China’s upstream dams restrictions while lower Basin countries experience severe drought conditions from April to September 2019, using satellite data during a 28-year period to come up with a calculation that Chinese dams had held back “a huge volume of water.”
"Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions", released 10 April, was produced by researches "Eyes on Earth, Inc" on behalf of the Lower Mekong Initiative, the Sustainable Infrastructure Initiative, and "PACT", who acknowledge that the report is "made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Department of State".
A spokesman from China’s Ministry Foreign Affairs rejected the Eyes on Earth’s study at the time as “unreasonable,” saying Yunnan province also saw serious drought last year.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is among those critical of China's dam-building programme on the Mekong, saying in August 2019 that construction has left the crucial waterway at its lowest level in a decade in Southeast Asian countries downstream, warning of "troubling trends". Pompeo raised concerns that China's efforts would establish a level of Chinese control over the waterway that would usurp authority from the MRC.
The new MRC Annual Report also describes high level exchanges and visits to Australia’s Murray-Darling and the United States’ Mississippi and Columbia River basins, which have opened up new perspectives on basin development and protection, drought relief and flood control. Such exchanges also allowed the MRC to explore new alternative energy options and public participation mechanisms, both are being put into use.