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28 March 2010

Mekong nations, China to meet to discuss low river level

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Four Southeast Asian countries badly hit by falling water levels in the mighty Mekong river will next week confront China, blamed for squeezing the river with dams, but concessions from Beijing are unlikely, reported Reuters.

Villages in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia have been hurt by the Mekong's biggest drop in water levels in half a century, impacting the agricultural and fishing industries as well as drinking water supplies.

Conservationists say 11 hydropower dams, either partly built or already completed, in southern China are choking supplies.

The four Southeast Asian countries, comprising the Mekong River Commission (MRC), will send leaders to the April 3-5 summit in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin.

China has agreed to attend, but Thai officials were unable to say at what level, reinforcing expectations Beijing will refuse to release water from its recently built dams.

"I don't see any chance of forcing China to release water from the dams, as the downstream countries want," said Somjai Phagaphasvivat, a political scientist at Bangkok's Thammasat University.

Beijing, he added, was under pressure to help its own people during a severe drought that has affected more than 50 million people across southwest China. Forecasters see no sign of China's water-shortage abating in the short term.

Water levels in the Mekong, Southeast Asia's biggest river flowing 4,350 km (2,700 miles) from the glaciers of Tibet to the rice-rich delta of southern Vietnam, have dropped to as low as 0.33 metre (13 inches) in places.

Analysts expect China to walk a fine line at the summit, hoping to project an image as leader of the region while retaining control of the Mekong's upstream water, giving various sorts of aid or economic support to countries hit by drought.

The Thai government expects China to provide water level data from two dams already constructed in its southern region and to explain how it is managing the water flow to ensure downstream countries have enough for consumption and farmland.

"It's a good sign China agreed to join the meeting as it shows China wants to handle the relationship with care," said Kasemsan Jinnawaso, director general of the Department of Water Resources at Thailand's Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment.


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