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China PM Pledges Improved Mekong River Water Data Sharing

Bangkok, Thailand

The Prime Minister of China has said that his country is willing to share more Mekong River water data with fellow members of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) organisation which consists of China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

"China is willing to offer more assistance within its capacity to other Lancang-Mekong countries for better utilizing water resources," Prime Minister Li Keqiang said in a 24 August video conference with leadership from the other organization members, Chinese state media reported.

The Mekong, which is Southeast Asia's longest river and acts as a lifeline to 60 million people, has been hit by record drought in two consecutive years.

The government of Thailand has urged the China-backed LMC, which is viewed by many as a mechanism to advance Chinese interests in the Mekong region, to work with the longer-established Mekong River Commission (MRC), which is more associated with US geopolitical positioning, when developing any information-sharing platform.

Earlier this month, a Situation Report from the MRC called for improved data sharing among the riparian nations. “We call on the six Mekong countries to increase data and information sharing on their dam and water infrastructure operations in a transparent and speedy manner with the MRC. It is time to walk the talk [sic] and to act in the common interest of the entire Mekong River Basin and the affected communities". Dr An Pich Hatda, the MRC Secretariat’s Chief Executive Officer, said 7 August.

The report observes that low flows could have severe impact on Cambodia with loss of fisheries and additional irrigation issues. Vietnam’s rice bowl in the Mekong Delta could be adversely impacted and agricultural productivity, while Laos and Thailand will also be affected.

The MRC's annual report, published 16 June, included a noteworthy statement calling for increased transparency from China over upstream dam operations on the river, observing 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 Annual Report said “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 US government funded 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 report describes 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. The study used 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" 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 Eye’s on Earth’s study at the time as “unreasonable,” saying Yunnan province also saw serious drought last year.

“Despite this, China has continued to do its utmost to guarantee reasonable discharge volumes” to countries downstream, the ministry said.

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