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US-funded "Mekong Dam Monitor" Launches

WASHINGTON DC, United States

A new, United States-funded real-time data platform using remote sensing is designed to bring transparency to dam operations in China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia. While the platform will aid understanding of the effects of upstream dams, it may also exacerbate US-China rivalry in the basin.

The Mekong Dam Monitor, launched 14 December, uses data collected from cloud-piercing satellites to track levels of dams in China and elsewhere. The project is a collaboration of the Stimson Center and research company Eyes on Earth and has been partly funded by the US government.

The data are available to anyone and offer a near-real time view of how major dams and the climate impact on the Mekong’s hydrological conditions.

The platform offers the following information:

  • River and dam water levels at dozens of locations across the river basin. In addition to data secured via satellite imagery, the Monitor will offer “virtual” gauges to estimate dam and river levels in places where it is not measured or the data is not shared by authorities.
  • The status of China’s Lancang Dam Cascade, showing how storage and release across the 11 dams is coordinated for power generation.
  • Natural Flow Models that utilize climate data to demonstrate how the river would flow naturally without upstream interference.
  • Climate anomaly comparisons from 1992 to mid-2020 that will enhance comparisons of temperature, precipitation, surface wetness, and snow cover throughout the basin.
  • Detailed mapping of all hydropower dams on the Mekong and its tributaries

The Mekong Dam Monitor aims to provide evidenced-based information about the condition and operations of dams, reservoirs, and water flow that will serve to counter inaccurate statements. This information, in turn, will empower stakeholders to make data-based decisions with a view to improving transboundary river governance.

Importantly, the data can offer early warning of impending floods, droughts and the consequent ecological and social impacts of the dams.

An April 2020 US government-funded study described China’s upper basin as having high rainfall and snowmelt while lower Basin countries experienced 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,” a claim disputed by China's government (OOSKAnews).

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been 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 Mekong River Commission (MRC).

At the time, a spokesman from China’s Ministry Foreign Affairs rejected the study as “unreasonable,” saying Yunnan province also saw serious drought. The official position is that water stored in reservoirs during the flood season helps to prevent both downstream floods and droughts. China welcomes constructive advice on water resources but opposes “malicious provocation”.

In November, OOSKAnews reported that China would now release year-round water data to the MRC, to improve river monitoring, and flood and drought forecasting in downstream Mekong Basin countries.

Brian Eyler, Stimson Center Southeast Asia Program Director and co-lead of the new project said, “The Mekong Dam Monitor platform lifts the veil on dam operations and water levels on the Mekong in a way that’s never been possible before. With innovations like the ‘virtual gauge’ and by pulling various data into one place, we are empowering a wide range of stakeholders across the region. In turn, we hope that transparency will increase accountability, empower countries most affected by dams, and ultimately help protect both the river and the people who depend on it".

Alan Basist, President of Eyes on Earth and project co-lead said, “We’re taking a data and evidence-based approach that complements the work of regional organizations and supports their missions. Data is our starting point — satellite imagery, wetness and precipitation data, GIS measurements, and more. Hopefully this can help policymakers promote transparency, as well as support a level playing field for negotiations on how best to allocate water resources in the Mekong Basin".

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