A senior United States official has said that Chinese control of dams along the upper Mekong River has “harmed the livelihood of tens of millions of people in Southeast Asian communities up and down the Mekong region basin,” and encouraged the downstream countries to hold China accountable.
The comments from David Stilwell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific were made in an online news conference 15 September the week after the annual meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Stilwell also reported the launch of a new Mekong-US Partnership last week with five countries of mainland Southeast Asia - Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam - with an initial annual commitment of over $140 Million USD to support expanded regional cooperation.
The official said that the US will “also continue to support transboundary resource governance, including the work of the Mekong River Commission in managing the resources of the Mekong River. The Mekong foreign ministers all singled out the US-supported Mekong Water Data Initiative as a key effort to help monitor and manage water resource challenges”.
“This is especially important because Beijing has long refused to act transparently in operating its vast network of upstream dams. This has harmed the livelihoods of tens of millions of people in Southeast Asian communities up and down the Mekong River basin. We called on China to make good on its promise to share its water data from the Upper Mekong River, and to do it through mechanisms developed by the Mekong region – the Mekong River Commission in particular”.
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.
China was accused in an April 2020 US government funded study of restricting water flow from 11 upstream dams, affecting people who live in the Lower Mekong where agriculture and fishing are the principal sources of support. Stilwell expressed support for the findings of this study during his 15 September briefing.
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.
A study by Tsinghua University and China’s Institute of Water Resources has argued that Chinese dams actually alleviate the Mekong area’s drought problems by enabling the release of stored water from the wet season in times of low flows.
Last month, a Situation Report from the Mekong River Commission (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.