China limited the Mekong’s flow. Other countries suffered a drought.

New research show that Beijing’s engineers appear to have directly caused the record low levels of water in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

China limited the Mekong’s flow. Other countries suffered a drought.
A narrow section of water flowed through the dried-out riverbed of the Mekong near Sangkhom, Thailand, in January. Credit... Adam Dean for The New York Times

As China was stricken by the coronavirus in late February, its foreign minister addressed a concerned crowd in Laos, where farmers and fishers across the Mekong River region were contending with the worst drought in living memory.

His message: We feel your pain. The foreign minister, Wang Yi, said China was also suffering from arid conditions that were sucking water from one of the world’s most productive rivers.

But new research from American climatologists shows for the first time that China, where the headwaters of the Mekong spring forth from the Tibetan Plateau, was not experiencing the same hardship at all. Instead, Beijing’s engineers appear to have directly caused the record low water levels by limiting the river’s flow.

“The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress,” said Alan Basist, who co-wrote the report, which was released on Monday, for Eyes on Earth, a water resources monitor.

“There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China,” Mr. Basist added.

The Mekong is one of the most fertile rivers on earth, nurturing tens of millions of people with its nutrient rich waters and fisheries. But a series of dams, mostly in China, have robbed the river’s riches.

Those who depend on its inland fisheries say their catches have declined precipitously. Persistent droughts and sudden floods have buffeted farmers.

Beijing’s control of the upstream Mekong, which provides as much as 70 percent of the downstream water in the dry season, has raised hackles, even though the Southeast Asian nations depend on trade with China. While the Chinese government has introduced a global development program that it says will benefit poorer trading partners, a backlash is growing among countries that feel they are losing out.

“The problem is that the Chinese elite see water as something for their use, not as a shared commodity,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program and author of “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.” 

As China’s geopolitical weight has grown, its leaders have cast the nation as a different kind of superpower, one that is concerned, as the Chinese phrasing goes, with “win-win” relationships with other nations.

But some countries, like Sri Lanka and Djibouti, have fallen into what critics fear are debt traps, as strategic projects end up in Chinese hands. Other African and Asian nations are worried that China is simply another imperial power eager to vacuum up natural resources without concern for the local populace.

“This is part of China’s business development,” said Chainarong Setthachua, a lecturer and Mekong expert at Mahasarakham University in northeastern Thailand. “The lay people who depend on the resources of the Mekong River for their livelihoods and income are automatically excluded.”

The data modeling created by Mr. Basist and his colleague Claude Williams measures the various components of a river’s flow, from snow and glacial melt to rainfall and soil moisture. The scientists found that for most years, the natural, unimpeded flow of the upstream Mekong roughly tracked water levels measured downstream at a gauge in Thailand, with occasional exceptions when dam reservoirs in China were being filled or released.

When there was a seasonal drought in China, the five downstream nations — Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam — would eventually feel it. When there was overabundant water in China, floods ensued in the Mekong basin. 

But during last year’s wet season, the fortunes of the river’s two parts diverged in dramatic fashion. As China’s section of the Mekong welcomed an above average volume of water, downstream countries were stricken by a drought so crushing that parts of the river dried up entirely, leaving cracked riverbed exposed in a season when fishing should have been plentiful.

At one gauge in Chiang Saen, in northern Thailand, such low water levels had never been recorded before.

 

Overall, during the 28-year period they studied this gauge, Mr. Basist and his colleague calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height.

While addressing regional foreign ministers in February, Mr. Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, contended that China, too, was suffering. He suggested that the Chinese leadership was being magnanimous by sending water downstream, especially at a time when Beijing was contending with a severe coronavirus outbreak.

“Though China itself has also been afflicted by the drought and a serious shortage of precipitation in the upper reaches, it has overcome various difficulties to increase the water discharge,” he said.

Mr. Basist disputed this take. 

“You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “China can regulate this river’s flow through dams, and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing.”

Adding to the downstream pain were sudden releases of water from China, which often came unannounced and drowned crops that had been planted near the banks because of the drought.

“The water release by China is political,” said Mr. Chainarong, of Mahasarakham University. “It’s made out to be them doing a favor. They create damage, but they ask for gratitude.”

While the Mekong is a lifeline for residents of downstream nations, the river rushes through narrow gorges in China, making it impractical for economic activity other than hydropower. At the turn of this century, the Chinese government, whose leadership at the time was dominated by engineers, began accelerating plans to dam the Lancang, as the Mekong is known in China.

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the nation’s southwest is punctuated by 11 major dams, which produce far more power than the region needs. Other great rivers that begin in the icy reaches of the Tibetan Plateau, like the Brahmaputra, a holy river to Hindus in India, have also been dammed in China. 

The existing energy glut was one reason Chinese environmentalists succeeded in persuading the government to shelve plans to dam another river in the region, the Nu, which becomes the Salween when it enters Myanmar.

Yet even as Beijing began its hydropower push on the Mekong, it refused to join Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in a regional group dedicated to the river’s health. In one survey commissioned by the group, the Mekong River Commission, scientists warned that a dam boom on the Mekong could rob the river of 97 percent of the sediment that flows to its mouth in Vietnam.

“The river will be dead,” said Niwat Roykaew, a community organizer and conservationist in northern Thailand.

“Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast,” Mr. Basist said. “The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

New York Times


Mekong water’s record low level threatens downstream countries

Mekong water’s record low level threatens downstream countries

The Mekong River Commission last month said the Mekong water levels during this early flood season from June to July are at historical low, wreaking havoc on hundreds of millions of inhabitants in downstream countries.  

Mekong River’s falling water levels affect Delta livelihoods

Mekong River’s falling water levels affect Delta livelihoods

People in the Mekong Delta are worried about the absence of floods this year as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) has warned about the record 10-year low of the river’s water level.

Mekong Delta supplied free freshwater

Mekong Delta supplied free freshwater

Thousands of people in the Mekong Delta Region have been given free freshwater to deal with the on-going drought and saline intrusion.

 
 

Other News

.
Pine forest poisoned in Central Highlands region
Pine forest poisoned in Central Highlands region
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  17/09/2020 

A pine forest in the Central Highlands province of Dak Nong has died after being poisoned.

Three Vietnamese scientists awarded Alexandre Yersin prize
Three Vietnamese scientists awarded Alexandre Yersin prize
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  17/09/2020 

The Swiss Vietnamese Medical Association (HELVIETMED) announced that three Vietnamese scientists have won the Alexandre Yersin Prize for outstanding medical publications, according to the Swiss Consulate General in HCM City.

Vloggers fined, but YouTube still winks at improper videos
Vloggers fined, but YouTube still winks at improper videos
FEATUREicon  17/09/2020 

Video clips with unhealthy content and ‘trash videos’ are rampant on the internet. But YouTube still has not set tight control over the toxic clips because it can ‘get more than it can lose’, according to observers.

Vietnamese Youtubers try to lure viewers with ‘dirty’ clips
Vietnamese Youtubers try to lure viewers with ‘dirty’ clips
FEATUREicon  16/09/2020 

YouTubers try every possible way to boost view counts, including posting clips with 'unhealthy' content, as they hope they can get big earnings from YouTube.

Lecturer, students make solar-powered lighting equipment
Lecturer, students make solar-powered lighting equipment
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  16/09/2020 

The product works thanks to the sunlight convergence mechanism.

International journal publishes Vietnamese IVF research
International journal publishes Vietnamese IVF research
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  15/09/2020 

The development of children born from a "freeze-only" transfer is similar to and even better than those born from a "fresh embryo" transfer, 

When will iPhone 12 arrive in Vietnam?
When will iPhone 12 arrive in Vietnam?
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  15/09/2020 

Because of Covid-19, iPhone 12 won’t arrive on the same day as the international launch, as it has in previous years, dealers say.

Vietnam mulls solutions to prevent unlicensed cross-border games
Vietnam mulls solutions to prevent unlicensed cross-border games
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  17/09/2020 

Preventing unlicensed games from crossing the border to Vietnamese gamers has been an ongoing headache for management agencies.

Study on development of children born in vitro by 'freeze-only' method published in international journal
Study on development of children born in vitro by 'freeze-only' method published in international journal
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  13/09/2020 

Fertility and Sterility is an international journal for obstetricians, gynecologists, reproductive endocrinologists, urologists, basic scientists and others who treat and investigate problems of infertility and human reproductive disorders.

Google share in Vietnam search market hits low on competition from Coc Coc
Google share in Vietnam search market hits low on competition from Coc Coc
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  14/09/2020 

The search engine's share giant dropped by nearly 4.8 percentage points in August 2020 year-on-year.

Vietnam strives to unleash potential of AI
Vietnam strives to unleash potential of AI
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  14/09/2020 

Whilst Artificial Intelligence (AI) can be considered a new yet promising concept in the nation, AI has been included in the list of high technologies that need to be prioritised for further development since 2014.

Hanoi working hard to combat air pollution
Hanoi working hard to combat air pollution
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  13/09/2020 

Deputy director of the Hanoi Department of Natural Resources and Environment Le Tuan Dinh speaks about solving the root cause of environmental pollution in Hanoi in a bid to improve air quality.

Hanoi struggles to deal with plastic waste
Hanoi struggles to deal with plastic waste
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  14/09/2020 

Plastic waste can take up to hundreds of years to decompose, creating an increasing burden on landfills, particularly when the sites run out of space to bury garbage.

HCM City restores polluted canals one by one
HCM City restores polluted canals one by one
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  12/09/2020 

The 10-kilometre Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe Canal running through districts 1, 3, Tan Binh, Phu Nhuan, and Binh Thanh in HCM City has become a popular place for sightseeing, taking photos and doing exercises.

VN cities needs strict measures to persuade residents to abandon old polluting motorbikes
VN cities needs strict measures to persuade residents to abandon old polluting motorbikes
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  12/09/2020 

Old vehicles are one of the major reasons behind the serious air pollution in urban areas.

Vietnam's top 10 research institutions in the fields of natural science
Vietnam's top 10 research institutions in the fields of natural science
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

The Vietnam Academy of Science and Technology (VAST) remains the leading unit in the number of international publications across the country during the period from July 1, 2019 to June 30, 2020.

Photo of Google’s made-in-Vietnam smartphone Pixel 4a leaked
Photo of Google’s made-in-Vietnam smartphone Pixel 4a leaked
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

This is Google’s latest smartphone model, which was first introduced to the market in early August after multiple delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Man prosecuted for keeping large number of rare tortoises
Man prosecuted for keeping large number of rare tortoises
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

A man in the Central Highlands province of Dak Lak has been prosecuted for illegally keeping up to 127 rare tortoises.

‘Make in Vietnam’ tool helps find ransomware
‘Make in Vietnam’ tool helps find ransomware
SCI-TECH & ENVIRONMENTicon  11/09/2020 

Decrypting and identifying ransomware and checking for malicious files are features of two new "Make in Vietnam" tools provided free of charge by the National Cyber Security Monitoring Center (NCSC).

Online game industry: VN still imports games after more than 15 years
Online game industry: VN still imports games after more than 15 years
FEATUREicon  09/09/2020 

Vietnam's online game market still has not seen a breakthrough policy that would allow it to develop well, even though it began developing more than 15 years ago.

 
 
 
Leave your comment on an article

OR QUICK LOGIN