One day after returning from the Mekong River Summit in Thailand, Prime Minister Hun Sen said yesterday that China’s Mekong river dams are not to blame for the river’s record low water levels.
In a speech yesterday at the Agriculture Ministry, the premier blamed low river levels in the Mekong on a drought that has struck northern Thailand, Laos and southern China, and not on the four dams that span the upper, Chinese section of the roughly 4,800-km waterway.
“The water of the Mekong goes lower or higher depending on the rains,” the premier said during a roughly two-and-a-half hour speech. “Raining is related to the climate change in the world. Why put the blame on China? I do not take sides with China, but only give it justice,” Mr Hun Sen said.
“The drought is occurring in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam,” the premier continued. “Who is it to be blamed on? Is it because China has built dams? But China has no water in the dams.”
Conservationists have acknowledged that the drought has had an effect on the record low level of the river, but suspicions over China’s dams remain.
Chhith Sam Ath, executive director of NGO Forum, said yesterday that there are multiple causes for the state of the river.
“I think it is partly because of the dams, not entirely,” he said.
Other countries on the Mekong “should ensure that their developments will not cause a negative impact” on the Mekong, he added.
Some conservationists have pointed to China’s Xiaowan Dam as a possible factor in the river’s low water levels. China began filling the reservoir of the dam in October 2009, around the same time the river’s level began to drop, according to a statement last month from the Save the Mekong Coalition.
The March 14 statement said that “the easiest and most accountable way for China to build trust with downstream communities and demonstrate that its dams are not compounding the impacts of the current drought,” would be to invite representatives to inspect their northern neighbor’s four dams.
In an apparent effort to build trust, China announced last month that it will share data from two of its dams, but not Xiaowan, before the end of the dry season.
Carl Middleton, Mekong program coordinator for the US-based International Rivers organization, welcomed the move but said it wasn’t enough.
“China’s growing openness to share it’s river data is unprecedented and a very positive step in the right direction,” he wrote in a March 29 e-mail. “However, only releasing all relevant datasets publicly, including the water levels of the Xiaowan dam and beyond the period of current drought would demonstrate genuine good neighborliness.”
Even before the low water levels, dams on the Mekong have earned the ire of conservationists, who say they can devastate the river system’s plentiful fish stocks, which are a large component in the diet of many in the region, especially Cambodians.
According to the Save the Mekong Coalition, there are a total of 15 dams planned or under construction on the Mekong river: nine in Laos and Thailand, two in Cambodia and four more in China.