Fri, Mar 26, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Once-mighty Mekong River faces disaster

BLED DRY A profusion of dams and engineering works along its upper reaches in China has cut the water supply and is affecting the survival of millions of people


One of the world's greatest rivers has been reduced to a trickle in places by a series of giant Chinese dams and engineering works which are threatening the livelihoods of up to 100 million people in Southeast Asia.

A body representing four downstream governments reported on Wednesday that the Mekong was at its lowest recorded level, flowing "close to rock bottom" near the end of a 4,800km journey that takes it from the Tibetan plateau, through China's Yunnan province, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Mekong's downstream countries, which are almost completely dependent on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transport, fear that China's plans for a further six major dams on the river could be disastrous.

"China holds all the trump cards," said one water analyst who asked not to be named. "If all these dams go ahead, the river's hydrology will be significantly altered and no-one can begin to understand the social or ecological consequences. China can do what it wants with impunity. It is a dangerous situation."

In recent months huge, previously unseen sandbanks have started emerging from the murky waters along the river's lower stretches, making navigation increasingly hazardous. According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a joint Lao, Cambodian, Thai and Vietnamese governmental body set up to oversee the health of the Mekong, monitoring stations show the river well below previous lowest levels recorded.

"We are very concerned," said Pech Sokhem, an MRC director in Phnom Penh. "It is very bad for agriculture and fishing. If the water doesn't flow properly, the fish will not spawn or migrate."

"The river has been getting shallower for many years now," said Yang Yara, a ferryman near Phnom Penh. "It makes my life hard because my boat is always getting stuck on islands and mud banks."

The Mekong River

* The Mekong is Southeast Asia's largest river

* The Chinese have completed two large dams on the upper stretches and have started work on a third. These will displace 42,000 people

* China is planning a further six dams

* Dams on the Chinese upper Mekong affect water flow in the lower Mekong during the dry season, changing the natural cycle of the river

* About 80 percent of rice production in the lower Mekong basin depends on water, silt and nutrients provided by the flooding of the Mekong. The dams could mean less frequent floods

Source: the guardian

"Not only is the Mekong the lowest in history, it is also fluctuating -- sometimes up, sometimes down. This comes from dam operations in China," said Chainarong Setthachua, director of Cambodia-based environmental group South East Asia Rivers Network.

Low rainfall last year is partly to blame for the river levels, as is increased use of water by growing populations along the whole length of the river, but Chinese dam-building in the upper stretches of the Mekong is thought to be responsible for many of devastating consequences downstream.

The Manwan hydroelectric dam across the upper Mekong, finished in 1996, has been frequently blamed by Thailand and other countries for reduced fishing and also for causing flash floods when water is released unpredictably.

A second giant dam, at Dachaoshan, is almost complete but is said to be already affecting the river flow, and a third is due for completion in 2012. None of them, say the countries downstream, has been fully assessed for its social or ecological impacts outside China, which hopes to generate the equivalent in clean electricity of 15 major power stations from the first three dams.

All the other countries which share the Mekong have ambitious plans to engineer their own lengths of river. The Mekong, only 20 years ago one of the most untouched rivers, could become one of the most dammed in the world with more than 100 other major dams, diversions and irrigation projects planned and thousands of smaller schemes already impacting on people downstream.

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