Is the Mekong river cursed by its resources? No one can really tell. What is apparent is its rich natural resources and ecosystems have created security for all lives and communities of diverse ethnicities that depend on it for a long time. However, this very richness is also utilized in a new dimension; the rich life elements are turned into electricity through a constructed and life threatening facility called “hydropower dams.”
The time China spent to build dams on the Mekong is as long as a butterfly flaps its wings when compare to the time of history. When China began operating the first hydropower dam on the Mekong, the Manwan dam, in 1993, it also perilously altered the Mekong water cycle, drying the Mekong. The water level at the Chiang Saen hydrological station was extremely low or too low to be measured for at least twice. From 19 to 26 April 1993, the water level mark was at 0.88-1.0 meter and 0-0.23 meter on 26-28 May 1993. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and the lower Mekong countries collectively labelled the phenomenon “drought,” as if it were a normal natural phenomenon.
Today, China has constructed 11 dams on the Mekong mainstream without showing any intention for consultation with the lower Mekong countries. The nearest dam to the lower region is the Jinghong dam, completed in 2009. The Jinghong dam is China’s third dam on the Mekong following the Manwan dam (completed in 1993) and the Dachaoshan dam (completed in 2003). Two larger dams follow: the Xiaowan dam (completed in 2010) and the Nuozhadu dam (completed in 2012). Every Chinese dam on the Mekong river can store at least 41.7 billion cubic meters of water. The most recent dam, the Wunonglong, was completed in February 2019.
Water management of all the 11 dams are controlled by the Jinghong dam, the nearest dam to the lower Mekong region and approximately 300 kilometers from Thailand’s Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai province. The Jinghong dam has incessantly and significantly altered the Mekong river flow ever since 1993.
China’s control over the Mekong water flow through the Jinghong dam has repeatedly caused damages and despair to the lower Mekong communities as well as destroyed the complex natural hydrological cycles of the Mekong. It ignores the voices of the Mekong people, calling China for accountability for its water management practice that leads to unnatural river fluctuations. China is only interested in the data-sharing ritual with the MRC. When a critical time hits downstream region of the Mekong river, as happened in early 2021, all parties, including the MRC, continually demanded China to share data on its dam operation and water management. This phenomenon only affirmed that China only concerned with its interests and had no regard to the joint responsibility it shared with the lower Mekong people’s interests. Such action revealed China as being liang mian san dao (两面三刀) or double crossing and zi si zi li (自私自利) or selfish. The data and analysis in this article argue that our description of China’s behavior is not over exaggerated. This article follows China’s action from the moment the butterfly flaps its wings to the following incidents that unsettle the whole region.
2010: The beginning of the Jinghong dam’s control over water
A year after the Jinghong dam began its operation, the dam started to reduce its discharge during the dry season in January 2010. An abrupt decrease appeared in February. By March, the discharge was a bit higher than previously but remained at the same level until May 2010 as shown in Figure 1.
Hardship was felt widely in all four lower Mekong countries–Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam–when the Mekong water level fell sharply. There were demands directed to China to increase its discharge, but China remained indifferent throughout the dry season which lasted until April 2010. The main reason was the Xiaowan dam, completed in 2010, began storing water. Nonetheless, a regional body such as the MRC explained on its statement on 26 March 2010 that the decreasing water level was due to the drought upstream in China.
Figure 1 Water level at the Chiang Saen hydrological station between January and May 2010.
December 2013: An abrupt water discharge
When the Jinghong dam discharged water from 13 to17 December 2013 (the beginning of the dry season), it created adverse damages to the lower Mekong basin. The Mekong water level continued to rise for 4 days. On 14 December, the Mekong water level was 3.84 meter at Chiang Saen district in Chiang Rai province. The water level rose highest on 17 December reaching as high as 6.87 meter. By 23 December, the water level fell to its previous level at 3.41 meter. It took the Mekong river approximately 10 days starting from the first day its water level rose to the day it returned to the usual level.
The impacts of the increasing Mekong water level in Chiang Saen were felt downstream, from Chiang Khan district, Loei province to Khong Chiam district, Ubon Ratchathani province, spanning over 800 kilometers. Agriculture, fishery and public utility systems along the Mekong river were all affected. Figure 2 shows the water level measured at the hydrological stations.
Figure 2 The Mekong water level changes in December 2013 at all Mekong hydrological stations in Thailand
A research on impacts during this time found the velocity of the Mekong river flow was higher than usual. There were foam-like bubbles floating on the surface as well as a lot of trash, wood scraps, tree logs and trees with roots. The river was so murky that it appeared almost red. There was oily sheen as well. The research surveyed damages on fishery (161 persons), riverbank agriculture (140 persons) and fish farming (43 persons) in 14 subdistricts and found all groups were affected by the unusual water level rise. The impacts were categorized as follow:
1. Impacts on fishery: The research revealed that the loss of income from selling fish was approximately 8,495 baht per person. The damages on fishing tools cost at least 1,426 baht per person.
2. Impacts on riverbank agriculture: As riverbank farms were flooded, a farmer could lose at least 2,964 baht of investment and possible income of at least 9,245 baht if the flooded products were sold.
3. Impacts on fish farming: For each fish farmer, 47,000 baht was immediately swept away with the water when all the farmed fish died.
The survey on the unusual Mekong water level fluctuations also revealed damages on other aspects. Notably, community water pump systems which fed water to the irrigation and water utility systems were severely damaged. The sudden rise and fall of the water level left all pumping stations hanging on the riverbanks and piled up with wood scraps, tree logs and trashes. Repairing the damages required a lot of local administrations’ budgets to move the pumping stations back to the river.
The MRC reported that the sudden peak of Mekong water levels was due to the unusual high rainfall in the upper Mekong region, leading the Jinghong dam to discharge a large amount of water. However, the MRC failed to recognize that two large dams completed in December 2013, the Xiaowan and the Nuozhadu, could store as much as 9.85 billion cubic meters.
The question or what the MRC ought to clarify was how much water was being held and managed by all the completed dams in China. Yet, the MRC cut the conclusion short by explaining that it was caused by a natural phenomenon.
Impacts of the sudden Mekong water level rise in December 2013
From natural low-water dry season to “flooding dry season” in the lower Mekong basin
Dry season of the Mekong river cycle normally lasts from January to April. However, in 2014, the Jinghong dam finally uprooted the Mekong river seasons by discharging water downstream to the lower Mekong basin. From 2014 to 2019, it alternated the discharge between releasing a large volume of water and delaying it, fluctuating the water level during the first four months of every year. When compared to the 1983-1991 average water flow before the construction of the Manwan dam, the flow during these six years was almost double to the past average. The average water level of the first four months during the most recent six years was approximately 2.98 meters; whereas, the average water level of the first four months between 1983 and 1991 was only 1.19 meter. See Figure 3 below.
Figure 3 Comparison of Mekong water levels at Chiang Saen hydrological station between January and April from 2014 to 2019 and 1983-1991 average (before the construction of dams in China)
This kind of discharge from the Jinghong dam led to continuous flood in the dry season or every first four months of the year. An example of the impacts caused by the unnatural water fluctuations occurred in 2019.
- The water level from 5 to 11 January 2019 was recorded as high as 2.05 meters at the Chiang Saen hydrological station. This caused severe damages to the riverbank crops. As it was only the beginning of the cultivation season, nearly all crops were flooded and damaged. When the water level eventually dropped, local farmers remained reluctant to grow another crop at the same riverbank as they feared the Mekong water level could rise again.
Comparing water levels at Keng Kood Koo in Chiang Khan district, Loei province on 30 January 2009 and 13 March 2014.
Comparing water levels at Had Salung in Phosai district, Ubonratchathani province in 2009, 2019 and 2020.
- The Mekong water level at the Chiang Saen hydrological station rose 1.93 meter from 12 February to 30 March 2019. Such a long period of high water level, as long as 48 days, drowned many upper and lower level sandbars and rapids along the Mekong river. This directly affected local tourism industry. The economic loss at the local level was immeasurable.
- The Mekong water level fell for a short period of time from 11 to 17 April 2019 as the dams in China discharge water to, as it claimed, support the celebration of new year festivals, or Songkran in Thailand, among the downstream communities. But the discharge could not undo the natural conditions of the Mekong sandbars and rapids, local tourism or local economy. In addition, China had been reducing discharge at the Jinghong dam for many years for power maintenance, as notified previously in April 2018.
The overall impacts of the fluctuating and abnormally large volume of discharge from the Jinghong dam in Yunnan province, China from January to April included flooded agricultural areas and sudden growth shocks among farmed fish. The higher water level also flooded sandbars and rapids which served as key tourist attractions e.g. Keng Pha Dai in Wieng Kaen district, Chiang Rai province; Keng Kood Koo in Loei province; Pan Khod Saen Krai and Had Jommanee in Nong Khai province; Keng A Hong and Had Bung Khla in Bueng Kan province; Had Phra Klang Tung in Nakhon Phanom province; Keng Kabao in Mukdahan province; Keng Hin Khan in Amnat Charoen province; Had Pak Sang, Had Salung and Sam Phan Bok in Ubon Ratchathani province. The economic loss and income loss at the local community level were immeasurable.
A large number of krai nam trees (Homonoia riparia) by the Mekong river at Keng Chan in Baan Had Khamphi, Had Khamphi subdistrict, Pak Chom district, Loei province continued to die starting in mid-2019.
A large number of krai nam trees (Homonoia riparia) by the Mekong river at Pan Khod Saen Krai in Baan Nong, Baan Muang subdistrict, Sang Khom district, Loei province continued to die starting in mid-2019.
2019-2021 Flooding and drying: Extreme fluctuations all year
The Jinghong dam has shown its capacity to control the Mekong water flow. In the dry seasons of 2020 and 2021, the Mekong water level was evidently low from January to April. The average water level was only 2.11 meters, compared to the previous years when the Jinghong dam discharge was high, pushing the average water level to as high as 2.98 meters and flooding the area in the dry season. (The 1983-1991 average water level was 2.11 meters). See Figure 4 below.
Figure 4 Comparing the average Mekong water level fluctuation in relation to the Jinghong dam discharge from January to April of 2020 and 2021 and the average of 1983-1991 and 2014-2019.
Even though the Jinghong dam discharge was less than half, the Mekong water level continued to fluctuate and affect local ecosystems and the life cycles of fish, plants and other organisms including migratory birds that resided by the Mekong riverbank in the dry season.
The reduced discharge in January 2020 and 2021 had one similarity: China continued the dam discharge even though it had already passed the end of the notified discharge period. This similarity can be observed in the following incidents:
- On 23 January 2020, Don Pramudwinai, the Thai minister of foreign affairs, travelled to meet with Wang Yi, the Chinese minister of foreign affairs, to discuss the drought situation in the lower Mekong basin. The meeting concluded in an announcement that China would add 150 m3/s to the discharge starting on 24 January 2020. In fact, China had actually decrease the discharge by 150 m3/s earlier. In this case, when China notified a 150 m3/s increase to the discharge, it was not a true increase but only a play on the numbers.
- From 5 to 24 January 2021, China notified that it would decrease the discharge. By the end of the notified period, China had not discharged more water from the Jinghong dam. Such an act was only a repetition to what happened in early 2020.
In contrast, the Jinghong dam discharge rate continued to be low starting in the 2020 rainy season until the 2021 rainy season. The average discharge rate in 2020 and 2021 was 889 m3/s and 987 m3/s respectively, as shown in Figure 5.
Figure 5 Jinghong dam discharge rate in 2020-2021
When all the dams in China held back the Mekong river and discharged water at a rate less than the natural rate through the Jinghong dam in the dry season, they prevented natural flooding to occur in the lower Mekong region while causing the Mekong river to be too low in the rainy season. This caused tremendous impacts on the migratory fish which depended on the large volume of water to travel into the tributaries for breeding and laying eggs. (But the Mekong water level was too low for the fish to migrate to the tributaries to lay eggs now). The changes in the water level also affected the conditions suitable for fish migration and led to immature eggs or laying eggs at odd seasons. Many riverside plants such as krai nam (Homonoia riparia) and lam sang (ต้นลำแซง) were dead. These plants were important food sources and breeding and spawning grounds for juvenile fish and aquatic lives. The reduced discharge also reduced the sediment loads downstream. As the Mekong river did not flood as long as before, weeds grown on the riverbank were not drowned or rot as before. In effect, riverbank soil fertility was reduced while erosion increased. The water became clearer, or sediment-starved, in November, which was much earlier than usual. This was followed by algae bloom (which is also related to the beginning of the Xayaburi dam operation in October 2019).
Nest of small pratincole (Glareola lactea). Small pratincoles usually lay eggs on rock banks when the Mekong water recedes. When the Jinghong dam discharge arrives unnaturally, it floods all the nesting area. Pak Chom district, Loei province.
Kai or Mekong freshwater seaweed. People in Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai province collect kai as food and source of income between February and March. The fluctuating water level caused by the Jinghong dam has adversely affected kai regeneration in the Mekong river and local income.
Water onion flowers in the dry season when the Mekong river recedes naturally. When the Mekong water level fluctuates and repeatedly drowns water onions, they become more vulnerable and may eventually die.
Fluctuating Mekong water level due to the Jinghong dam discharge has triggered fish to breed and lay eggs. Juvenile fish remains in the riverside ponds (nong). If the Mekong water level continues to recede and the ponds dry up, these juvenile fish, trapped in the ponds, will eventually die.
Stopping/Delaying discharge for (illusionary) security of the Jinghong dam’s transmission lines
Ever since its operation began in 2009, the Jinghong dam discharge has been either abnormally high or low. This fluctuation is increasingly less predictable. Yet, there was no prior notification from 2010 to 2017. By 2018, the Jinghong dam began to consistently notify the MRC that it would reduce the discharge for maintenance of the power grid and transmission lines. There was one notification in 2018, 2020 and 2021 each and three notifications in 2019. In 2019, the notification for the discharge reduction from 11 to 17 April 2019 came with a reason to support the local Dai ethnic’s traditional new year festival. This was the first and possibly the only notification that China explained its reason. There were no further or other explanations in the following years until 2021.
China’s official notifications of the Jinghong dam discharge to the lower Mekong basin are listed chronologically below:
- 9-17 April 2018: the Jinghong dam would reduce the discharge from 1,500 m3/s to 1,200-1,000 m3/s for the security of the power grid.
- 11-17 April 2019: the Jinghong dam would reduce the discharge from 2,000-3,000 m3/s to 1,500-1,600 m3/s to support the traditional activities of the Dai ethnic minority in China.
- 5-19 July 2019: the Jinghong dam would reduce the discharge from 1,050-1,250 m3/s to 504-800 m3/s for maintenance of the transmission lines.
- 11-15 August 2019: the Jinghong dam would reduce the discharge from 1,100 m3/s to 600-800 m3/s for maintenance of the transmission lines of the power grid.
- 27-31 December 2019 and 1-4 January 2020: the Jinghong dam would adjust the discharge from 1,200-1,400 m3/s to 800-1,000 m3/s between 1-3 January and to 504-800 m3/s on 4 January 2020 for dam equipment testing.
- 5-24 January 2021: the Jinghong dam would adjust the discharge to 1,000 m3/s. However, the Jinghong dam had reduced its discharge since 31 December 2020 from 1,410 m3/s to 768 m3/s by 1 January 2021 and increased to 786 m3/s on 4 January 2021 for maintenance of the transmission lines of the power grid.
As there is no prior data on the Jinghong dam discharge while the existing data for 2019 is incomplete, this article uses the water level data measured at the Chiang Saen hydrological station (located approximately 300 kilometers downstream from the dam) as an index for the Jinghong dam discharge rate. See Figure 6.
Figure 6 The Mekong water level at the Chiang Saen hydrological station between 2018 and 2021 after the notification on the Jinghong dam discharge.
The overall all-year discharge of the Jinghong dam from 2018 to 2021 reveals 2 notable patterns of the discharge:
- The Jinghong dam discharge rises and drops all year but without notification. There are many occasions when the increasing or decreasing discharge is more severe than the notification. Yet, China never provides an explanation.
- The reduced discharges in January of 2020 and 2021 are similar. Even though the notified period has ended, China continues to reduce the discharge rather than increasing it.
China claimed that the Jinghong dam discharge reduction was due to maintenance of the transmission lines. This explanation was used 5 times in 34 months. The Jinghong dam has been operating for only 10 years. It is important to raise a question to this explanation and whether such a need really exists. China has never published the images for the maintenance either. Not once. The MRC and all the four lower Mekong governments never provide any scientific evidence to their people to confirm that the maintenance of the transmission lines in China really happened. There was only a piece of ink-stained paper from China.
The dams in China will continue to steal water from the Mekong river. China’s selfishness and double crossing move will also continue. If the lower Mekong governments and the MRC could only act as another selfish group who holds each other’s hands to build dams on their people’s back and takes away the abundance of the Mekong river from the people and the ecosystem, then our governments are also double crossing us, the people in their own countries. Discourses such as “sustainable hydropower dam developments” and texts such as “the Study on Sustainable Management and Development of the Mekong River Basin including Impacts of Mainstream Hydropower Projects or the ‘The Council Study’” are great examples of this double crossing move. Their intention targets on building all the planned dams on the lower Mekong mainstream by 2040. Yet, simultaneously, they trap and lure their people on the 19% potential shared benefits from the mainstream Mekong hydropower dams. These narratives are possibly the most complete serious lies that the Mekong governments, the MRC and all the donors brought to the people in this century.
 From Ecology, Economics, Cultures of the Mekong Basin: From Keng Kood Koo to Pha Chan in a Changing Course by the Foundation of Ecological Recovery, Nature Care Foundation and Network of Mekong Community Organisations in Thailand’s 7 Northern provinces (NMCO). May 2015.