27 Years of Mekong Politics

A war trap between China and America on the day that the wound of the Mekong River remains chronic.

There is probably no other moments in the long history of the Chinese Embassy in Thailand where it has to issue the statements via social media denying the accusation of causing radical changes in the Mekong river’s flow to “flood in dry season, dry in rainy season” mode. From 2019 and continued to the beginning of 2020, due to the fact that Jinghong Dam reduced its drainage and has been causing drought in the Mekong river for several months now, such statements were like “showcases” calling for “visitors” all the time. The statements were sorted by date as follow: 5 July 2019; 13 February 2020; 26 February 2020; 2 March 2020 and 24, 25, 27 and 28 April 2020. The Chinese Embassy tried to refute the criticisms mainly using the following discourses: water proportion from China is only 13.5%; additional drainage in dry season is for irrigation; cutting drainage in rainy season for reducing damages of flooding, including using the discourse “To create good things for people in the region, for a good cooperation within the sub-region” or “Shared River, Shared Future” to claim that people in the lower Mekong are indebted to China.  

Regardless of what China claimed, the hydrological effects have been occurring since Manwan Dam began generating electricity in the dry season of 1993 or 27 years ago. At that time, people living along the Mekong River might have thought that it was merely a matter of upstream drought. But the problem was affirmed by the study of the Department of Water Resources in 2004 reporting the flow analysis of the Mekong and confirming that the flow impacts caused by the Manwan Dam (the first dam) in 1993. The Mekong water level during dry season was very low and the lowest level could not be measured (or at 0 meter) at Chiang Saen water level measuring station on 28 May 1993 while the Mekong water level in May was increasing in rainy season. In addition, the Mekong water level statistics of both the Department of Water Resources and the Mekong River Commission (MRC) pointed out the all-time variability of the Mekong level and the increased amount of water in dry season which have never happened before the construction of the Manwan Dam.                

The serial impacts from hydrological changes have been taking place throughout 26 years since the Manwan Dam started to reserve water and generate electricity. It has completely destroyed the natural basic flow pattern, the damages have repeatedly happened both in Thailand (the Mekong River from Chiang Rai down to Ubon Ratchathani within the total distance of approximately 1,500 kilometers) and in other lower Mekong Basin countries. Although the quantity of the water in dry season is increasing, it does not mean that the Mekong River’s ecosystem and its downstream people will be beneficial as claimed by the Chinese authorities alone.         

Ultimately, the Mekong River’s impact issue has been included in international politics between China and America since March up until now in 2 events which are

The first event took place on Twitter with #MilkTeaAlliance in April 2020, the content created by such hashtag was the sympathy among China-dominated countries as well as the concern regarding China’s global power expansion through the economic cooperation features towards other countries. More hashtags were then created such as #ChinaliedPeopledie #Chinamustpay, the Mekong issues were immediately moved to the international economic and political issues. However, the aggressiveness on Twitter only came from the citizens of 4 countries (Thailand; China; Hong Kong and Taiwan). The Chinese Embassy issued a statement about this conflict situation on 14 April 2020 stating that online opinions would not affect the international relations, even though someone tried to provoke the hatred among people, because it adheres to the “One-China” principle as well as “China and Thailand are brothers”.       

This statement really confused Thai people since the controversy on Twitter was not a big national issue at all. China’s attitude in the statement converted Thailand to its mandated country causing Thai people to be extremely upset. Many people commented whether the Chinese dams on the Mekong River are examples of brotherhood. After that, the initial conflict between Thai and Chinese Twitter users was put forward to the issue of Chinese dams and also spread from Twitter to Facebook.     

The second event came from the publication of Stimson and Eyes on Earth’s study: Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions (under the Mekong Water Data Initiative project of USAID) on 13 April 2020. The study used the underground wetness satellite measurement in order to prove that Yunnan area has high humidity (higher than the normal average) while along the Mekong River downward from Thailand-Laos has low humidity. Although such study could neither figure out the water quantity nor the water usage in the upper dam areas, it yet stated that the upper dam areas in China were not dry as claimed. 

The said study brought about the Chinese Embassy’s successive publication of articles on Chinese Embassy Bangkok Facebook page for 4 days (24, 25, 27 and 28 April 2020). And in the Embassy Headlines on the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the Kingdom of Thailand website regarding 7 questions 7 answers for the development and utilization of water resources in the Mekong River provided opinions of the “expert” (not specify who it is) towards each comment attacking China’s dams in the Mekong River throughout the week up to 7 posts together with graphic illustrations: Chinese dams are responsible for water management preventing droughts in dry season and floods in rainy season; drought is caused by climate change and less rain; Thailand’s northeastern region is too far away from China, it is not certain whether releasing of water could help anything and Chinese dams are Run-of-River, for instance. China also referred to the MRC’s opinion replying to the aforesaid article on 21 April 2020 and concluded that such study intentionally ignored the fact; exaggeratedly claimed some statistics and there was not enough scientific evidence. China believed that the study’s purpose was for directly attacking itself.               

During the same week, the U.S. Embassy Bangkok took advantage of the situation by issuing an article on the U.S. Embassy and Consulate in Thailand website on 25 April 2020 and publishing it in Krungthep Turakij newspaper the same day. It was written by U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Michael George DeSombre under the title “Saving the Mekong, the Economic Lifeblood of an Entire Region”. The article discussed the over 60-year-long relationship and cooperation between America and the Mekong Basin countries leading to sympathy and concern over Thailand’s crisis caused by the Mekong dam projects which will destroy livelihoods and resources. It also showed the satellite imagery indicating that plentiful water is available on upper dam of the Mekong River in China which contradicted to the dry lower Mekong. This article expressed an important attitude, that is to say America has obviously confronted China.          

The phenomenon of reactions between the Chinese Embassy and the U.S. Embassy in Thailand during the month of April 2020 regarding the impacts of Chinese dams to the 4 lower Mekong Basin countries, each of them used the information from its research institute as base in the argumentations. And it has become part of the conflicts between America and China which comprised of several issues: COVID-19; Taiwan/Hong Kong and lately including the disputes in the South China Sea.    

On the one hand, we might see that the attention on the impacts of Chinese dams to the lower Mekong River Basin were raised and global media spread more news about it, but it is difficult to create a problem-solving process under the challenging international politics of the 2 superpowers both of whom would not be surrendered.  

Although the impacts of the Chinese dams have been going on for 27 years and have been significantly more radical in 2019 and 2020, it yet turned out that both Thailand’s political sectors as well as the responsible agencies have never, not even once, recognized such impacts happened to Thai people and taken a clear stance on these matters towards Chinese authorities. Instead, they could only acknowledge the changes of the Mekong River flow caused by Chinese dams.

The example of Chinese dams’ impacts is the case of the dried Mekong during dry season of 2010 due to the activation of Xiaowan Dam. The construction of this dam was completed and it started to store water during dry season of 2009-2010 with its storage capacity of 14,560 million cubic meters which is equal to Bhumibol Dam’s capacity, the Mekong water level was consequently explicitly dried and broadly affected the downstream countries. And in this year of 2010, it was the first time that the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok had to meet with people networks from the Northeast and the North in front of the embassy receiving the letter from the Mekong-Lanna Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network on 3 April 2010. Such letter contained of key requests to stop Mekong dam and Mekong’s rapids blasting projects; to review the 4 completed Chinese dams in order to let downstream people participate in managing the river in the way that will not cause any downstream impacts as well as to create a process of inclusive participation of all the Mekong Basin countries to achieve the management cooperation of the Mekong Basin for fairness and sustainability.     

The gathering of the Mekong people networks was occurred by a common motivation which was the impact of the 4 completions of Chinese dams blocking the Mekong River without any responsibilities of China regarding the damages towards both the ecosystems and Mekong people’s livelihoods. Amidst the hydrological changes and the fluctuations of the Mekong water level caused by Chinese dams that keep repeating up to now, China has already blocked the Mekong River with its 11 completed dams.      

China’s massive release of water from Jinghong Dam in December 2013 resulting in rapid increase in the Mekong water level from 13 to 17 December 2013 measured in Chiang Saen district, Chiang Rai province. The water level continued to rise for about 5 days from 3.76 meters in 13 December to the highest at 6.96 meters in 17 December 2013 and decreased to its normal level at 3.78 meters in 21 December. It took approximately 9 days in total from the day the water level was up until it was down to the normal level, the Mekong level rose a total level of 3.2 meters during this period. Such rising of the Mekong level had serially affected throughout the lower Mekong in the northeastern region of Thailand.        

At that time, there was a survey on damages occurring to several groups of villager in 14 sub-districts who earn their livings in relation to the Mekong River, all groups were found affected by the strange tide of the Mekong as follows: 

1. Impact on fishery of 161 cases, it was found that they lost approximately 8,495 baht of their sales income per case and at least 1,426 baht of their fishery-related gears per case.   

2. Impact on the Mekong riverbank agriculture of 140 cases, it was found that the Mekong riverbank areas were flooded causing damages on the already paid cost which was at least 2,964 baht per case and if their crops could be sold, it would generate at least 9,245 baht of income per case.    

Riparian Agriculture along the Mekong river at Phra Klang Thung Subdistrict Drowning from the Mekong River suddenly in December 2013

3. Impact on caged fish farming of 43 cases, it was found that they had to suffer an immediate loss of 47,000 baht in total per case owing to dead fishes.

The areas where the abnormal tides of the Mekong were surveyed also had other damages especially to the pumping system for agriculture as well as for the production of community water supply. As the Mekong water level has rapidly increased and decreased, every pumping stations were then stuck on the banks. In addition, a lot of wood chips; logs and trashes were blown up and accumulated, large amount of local budgets were consequently used for moving these pumping stations back to the normal level of the Mekong River. 

The damages of “flood in dry season, dry in rainy season” pattern of the Mekong tide from January to December of 2019 got the Mekong water level significantly changed by the drainage of the Chinese Jinghong Dam. As a result, the overall level of the Mekong measured at Chiang Saen gauge in Chiang Rai province down to Khong Chiam gauge in Ubon Ratchathani province had all-time highly fluctuated in 4 periods of time during dry season of 2019 from January to April. 

And when it was rainy season from June to October, the Jinghong Dam reduced its drainage bringing about the very low water level from Chiang Saen gauge as well as every other gauges downstream to Khong Chiam and causing a “flood in dry season, dry in rainy season” phenomenon. Such severe and extreme fluctuation of the Mekong has caused impacts in various aspects as follow: 

Firstly, the “flood in dry season” phenomenon resulted in flooding of agricultural crops; growth cease of caged fishes including underwater sand beaches and rocky rapids which are main tourist attractions in every provinces such as Kaeng Pha Dai in Wiang Kaen district, Chiang Rai province; Kaeng Kud Koo in Loei province; Phan Kod Saen Krai and Jommanee beach in Nong Khai province; Kaeng Ahong and Bung Khla beach in Bueng Kan province; Phra Klang Thung beach in Nakhon Phanom province; Kaeng Ka Bao in Mukdahan province; Kaeng Hin Khan in Amnat Charoen province including Pak Saeng beach, Salung beach and Sam Phan Bok in Ubon Ratchathani province. It created the economic and local income losses which cannot be evaluated. 

Secondly, the Jinghong Dam’s drainage reduction in July 2019 brought about an immediate drying of the Mekong River even in rainy season and severely affected fish and aquatic animals in the Mekong ecosystem. For example, Mekong fishes could not find natural suitable areas for mating and spawning; a lot of fishes and aquatic animals stuck in the Mekong’s swamps died because when the water level decreased, the water in such swamps also decreased and a lot of Mekong aquatic plants were standing dead, particularly Homonoia which was a place for fish spawning and nursery in the Mekong. All these impacts had a chain effect to the abundance of fishery resources in the Mekong River.       

The Mekong water is dry until the water belly can be seen at Pak Chom, Loei Province, 2019

Thirdly, the quick decrease of the Mekong from October to November illuminated a natural signal mistake on large amount of Mekong fish life cycle causing unseasonal migration of many fish species such as Probarbus jullieni that should migrate during December-January, unseasonal migration made them lose their chances of mating as well as spawning. Moreover, such rapid reduction of water level also affected the Mekong riverbank agriculture and the water supply system along the Mekong, communities needed to invest more in providing enough water to their crops. Besides, a traditional boat racing in some provinces must be discontinued this year owing to the dry condition of the Mekong, such boat racing is a common tradition among communities in Thailand and Lao PDR.   

The Jinghong Dam drainage reduction in 2020 caused major impacts in dry season of 2020 such as

1. The continuation of unusual low Mekong level since the end of 2019 together with the very low water level during the beginning of 2020, there was much more fish caught in certain parts of the Mekong like never before since lots of fish looked for their habitats in the deep pool and when the water was very low and very transparent, they were as a result easily caught in large amounts both on Thai and Laos sides.    

2. Impacts on agricultural systems which depend on water from the Mekong River. As the Mekong water level has considerably decreased, the villagers needed to invest more in water pumping to water their crops. In some areas, the impossible water pumping along with the very hot weather, many of the Mekong riverbank agricultural crops then grew imperfectly.     

3. Impacts on water pumping systems for producing water supply for communities and big city along the Mekong River.

When rainy season came in June onward, the Jinghong Dam reduced its drainage again making the Mekong level at Chiang Saen gauge very low. And if it remains this low throughout the season, the water will then not flowing into the creeks and tributaries and the Mekong ecosystem will deteriorate like in 2019. This condition will affect the Mekong fish and aquatic life propagation for one more year making it difficult for the ecosystem and fisheries in the Mekong River to recover in the future.           

The Chinese dams’ impacts on ecosystem and livelihoods of the people in 4 lower Mekong Basin countries have been repeating for 27 years without any responsibility from China who controls the upstream of the river. The people downstream have always called for solutions for this problem, given the status of Chinese great power in the Mekong region causing “Thai governments in every era” to lose their stance on protecting their own people’s benefits in negotiating with China in solving the problems accumulated for over 2 decades. And when the big power like America joined in this lower Mekong issue with a clear political objective to block Chinese influences in the lower Mekong region, it has no serious goal for the Mekong people. This situation will be in line with Chinese requirement in pushing the problem back to the matter of politics as hidden agenda and using this opportunity not to take any responsibilities.               

The Mekong Basin people still have to keep on calling for this problem solution not only towards Chinese authorities but also the “conscience and responsibility” of Thai government in being a voice for Thai people and do not let the fight between America and China dominate the obligation of solving such existing problem.   

Mekong-Lanna River Basin Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network submit a letter to the representative of the Chinese Embassy (Mr.Yao Men) on April 3, 2010 (photo by TERRA).

Statement and Attachments of the Mekong-Lanna River Basin Natural Resources and Culture Conservation Network

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