Can Mekong Stingrays Tell the Chinese Dam Story Well?

China is crafting “wonderful stories” about its upstream dams in the Mekong. But the overall thrust of the narrative glosses over the more controversial aspects of dam building.

Can a giant stingray in the Lower Mekong be used to craft a good narrative about Chinese upstream dams? It can, according to an unsigned Khmer Times article in June 2022 about a 300-kilogramme stingray found in Cambodia’s Stung Treng province. The article quoted Zeb Hogan, an American biologist and director of the Wonders of the Mekong project, as saying that “stingrays do not like to live in polluted waters”, and this “shows that China’s dam construction doesn’t affect the Lower Mekong’s ecosystem”. The project is funded by the US Agency for International Development.

Republished on the website of the China-administered Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform (LMC-ISP), this could have been an example of the “wonderful stories” the Chinese hope to tell to refute what they see as unfounded and US-instigated allegations about the negative environmental impact of dam building in the upstream Lancang (the Chinese name for the Mekong).

The stingray story, however, appears to have a sting in its tail. In reality, it is pure fabrication. Hogan confirmed via email with this author that he never spoke to the Khmer Times and he “did not (emphasis his) say anything that was reported in the article”, adding that “it is clear that upstream dams do (emphasis his) impact the lower Mekong River.” The article is a cautionary tale about China’s audacity in pushing dubious narratives about the Mekong water development.

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