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ASEAN ANALYSIS  3 August 2010

China and the Greater Mekong Subregion

By David Swartzentruber
AseanAffairs   3 August 2010

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The startling photos of the islands of garbage floating in the lake above the Three Gorges Dam that are currently gracing the Internet again brings attention to that country’s disregard for environmental protection. And along with that concern is China’s plans for more dams on the Mekong and the effect that may have on the other member countries of the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) downstream.

The GMS is a development project developed by the Asian Development Bank in 1992 that brought together the states of the Mekong River basin: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and the Yunnan Province of China.

About 250 million people live in the subregion as well as an estimated 20000 plant species, 1300 fish species, 1200 bird species, 800 reptile and amphibian species, and 430 mammal species. It is a biodiversity hotspot according to global environmental groups.

China has already built three dams on the upper Mekong, a fourth is on the way with plans for four more in the future. A report in May by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) warned that China’s plan for a cascade of eight dams on the Mekong might pose “a considerable threat” to the river and its natural riches.

China's Xiaowan dam, the world's tallest, poses a huge challenge to the Mekong river basin countries and the recent drying up of the Mekong to extremely low levels has brought concern to the folks downstream.

In June, Thailand’s prime minister was handed a petition calling for a halt to dam building. It was signed by more than 11,000 people, many of them subsistence farmers and fishermen who live along the river’s mainstream and its many tributaries.

Meanwhile, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have put forward plans to dam their sections of the Mekong mainstream, prompting Vietnam to object and undermining the local environmentalists’ case against China. However, the recent economic downturn has delayed

Although the Mekong is widely regarded as a Southeast Asian river, its source is in the glaciers high in Tibet. Nearly half of the 4,880 kilometer river flows through China’s Yunnan province before it reaches Southeast Asia. Since there is no international treaty governing use of trans-boundary rivers, China is in a dominant position, controlling the Mekong’s headwater. It has the right to develop its section of the river as it sees fit, and has not joined the Mekong River Commission, an inter-government forum to hash out issues such as the damming of the Mekong. Chinese has assured everyone that the dams will even out the flow of water through the Mekong but others differ from that point of view.

However, the UNEP-AIT report said that Cambodia’s great central lake Tonle Sap, the nursery of the lower Mekong’s fish stocks, and Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, its rice bowl, are at risk from changes to the river’s unique cycle of flood and drought. The Cambodian lake is linked to the Mekong by the Tonle Sap River. Scientists are concerned that reductions in the Mekong’s natural floodwater flow will cause falls in the lake’s water level and fish stocks, already under pressure from over-harvesting and pollution.

Vietnam worries that dwindling water volumes will aggravate the problem of sea water intrusion and salination in the low-lying Mekong Delta, where climate change and sea level rise threaten to inundate large areas of productive farm land and displace millions of people by the end of this century.

While China seeks to ingratiate its Asian neighbors, the dam story unfolding in the Greater Mekong Subregion could hinder its goodwill campaign.

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