Posted by: Jason | December 19, 2009

The Mekong

My primary interest in China’s water comes from its international rivers – the Mekong, the Indus, and the Brahmaputra, in particular.  Writing for the New York Times from Sop Ruak, Thailand, Kevin Fuller recently posted a story about dams and development along the Mekong (along with an accompanying photo essay by Kevin German).

The Mekong’s headwaters are in China, but before emptying into the South China Sea, it flows through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.  Collectively, usage of the Mekong is managed by the Mekong River Commission.  Unfortunately, the two upstream riparians – China and Burma – have refused to participate in the the shared governance of the river.  As China’s demand for hydroelectric power grows, the demands it places on the Mekong will continue to increase.  Unlike dams on the Yangtze, Yellow or Pearl Rivers, however, Chinese reservoirs on the Mekong have direct international repercussions.

But today the river, which courses 3,032 miles through parts of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea, is rapidly being transformed by economic development, the region’s thirst for electricity and the desire to use the river as a cargo thoroughfare. The Mekong has been spared the pollution that blackens many of Asia’s rivers, but it is no longer the backwater of centuries past.

China has built three hydroelectric dams on the Mekong (known as the Lancang in Chinese) and is halfway through a fourth at Xiaowan, in Yunnan Province, which when completed will be the world’s tallest dam, according to the United Nations Environment Program.

In Vietnam and Laos, many local economies depend on fishing the Mekong –

“The fish will have nowhere to go,” said Kaew Suanpad, a 78-year-old farmer and fisherman in the village of Nagrasang, Laos, which sits above the river’s great Khone Falls.

“The dams are a very big issue for the 60 million people in the Mekong basin,” said Milton Osborne, visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, and the author of several books on the Mekong. “People depend in very substantial ways on the bounty of the Mekong.”

Some analysts see the seeds of international conflict in the rush to dam the river. Civic groups in Thailand say they are frustrated that China does not seem to care how its dams affect the lives of people downstream.

Not all local users share my fears about international conflict, however –

And yet, for now, the dams are not national preoccupations in any of the countries along the river. “Most of the voices that are shouting in the wilderness about these dams are still very little heard outside of academic circles,” Mr. Osbourne said.

There have been no major protests, and for many people in the region the dams are the symbol of progress. The development of the Mekong is also an affirmation of a new Asia that is no longer hidebound by ideological conflict.

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