Death of A River
The Mekong River and the Chinese Development Projects Upstream

Trần Tiễn Khanh (2/2003)

The Mekong river is known to the Vietnamese as Song Cuu Long (River of Nine Dragons) because it flows out of nine estuaries like nine dragons. From its origin in the high plateau of Tibet, the Mekong river is 4500 km long and the 12th longest river in the world, flowing through six countries that include China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. True to its name (Mekong means Mother River in Laotian), the Mekong river is the lifeline to more than 60 million inhabitants in downstream countries such as Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Most of them are poor fishermen living off the river fish catch or poor farmers using the river water and rich silt to grow rice. They also use the river as their principal means of transportation. In the next two decades, the number of the basin inhabitants is expected to increase to over 100 millions. Their daily life is constantly threatened by floods, deforestation, pollution as well as ill-planned development projects. The biggest threat to their livelihood is the hydroelectric dams built or planned by the Chinese in Yunnan Province. Moreover, the Chinese are clearing and enlarging the river as a navigation channel for large commercial boats. These development projects by China will cause serious economic and environmental consequences in countries within the river basin, especially Cambodia and Vietnam. In going ahead with these projects, China has not considered the interests of these countries. This may be the cause for conflict, political crisis and even war in the near future. Even the survival of the river may be in serious doubt in the next few decades. After examining the Chinese development projects, experts at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC have been alarmed by the prospect that some fish species may become extinct. These experts also predicted that the Mekong river may die similar to the Yangtze and other large rivers in China due to ill-planned development and widespread pollution.

In the last ten years, China has begun the construction of hydroelectric dams in Yunnan. The Manwan dam was built in 1993 with an electrical output of 1500 MW. The Dachaoshan dam has just been completed in December 2002. This dam has an output of 1350 MW, with a height of a 30-story building and a water reservoir of 88 km in length. China has just begun in January 2003 the construction of the Xiaowan dam, with an output of 4200 MW and a reservoir of 169 km in length. Costs for the Xiaowan dam are estimated at 4 billion USD. When completed in 2013, this dam will be the tallest in the world, with a height of 300 m similar to a 100-story building. At least five other big dams are also planned by the Chinese. All these dams are designed to generate electricity for Yunnan, a relatively poor province that China is trying to develop.

China has also begun the dredging of the river to facilitate the travel by large boats. The river bottom in Yunnan has already been cleared. Underwater rocks and rapids on a 300-km stretch of the river, from the Burmese-Chinese border to Laos, has begun to be destroyed. When completed, commercial boats larger than 100 MT can travel from the port of Simao in Yunnan to other ports in neighboring countries.

China has said that all the above hydroelectric and navigational development projects should bring several benefits to the countries downstream. The Chinese leaders also mentioned that any ecological and environmental effects, if existed, are minimal. The hydroelectric dams should alleviate the flooding problem during the monsoon season and the drought problem during the dry season. Turning the river into a shipping channel should also increase trade between China and other neighboring countries and bring prosperity to all.

The above development projects are conducted in secrecy and little details are known. China frequently minimizes or hides all adverse environmental impacts. Recently an environmental impact assessment for the river enlargement has been criticized by the Mekong River Commission as incomplete and fundamentally flawed. All four downstream countries (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) are members of this commission, while the two upstream countries (Burma and China) have refused to join but have frequently sent in observers.

Contrary to the Chinese findings, hydroelectric dams will cause economic and environmental disasters, affecting the lives of millions in countries downstream. Floods occur annually from June to October and hundreds have lost their life. Most of the flood victims are children who die of drowning due to lack of supervision by older members of their family. There are signs that the Yunnan dams have increased the flood intensity in 2002. Since the water reservoirs have been full, the dams have released excess water that further raised the floodwater level of the Mekong. The number of flood victims and damages to crops and homes have increased in Cambodia, Thailand and elsewhere.

During the dry season, the Mekong water level is markedly low because only the glaciers in Tibet and Yunnan remain the water sources. The average flow rate decreases from 50,000 m3/s during the rainy season to only 2000 m3/s during the dry months. The dry season normally lasts from November to May. If the upstream dams do not release water because of drought or water needs of the reservoirs, serious consequences can occur downstream. All downstream countries will be affected by saltwater intrusion, and rice fields in many places will have to be abandoned because of saltwater or lack of water for growing crops.

In addition to changing the water levels and the natural cycles of the Mekong, water reservoirs at the dams will retain the rich sediment. Lacking water and rich silt will render the rice fields downstream less fertile. Rice production will decrease drastically, especially in the Mekong delta of Vietnam. The amount of rich silt may decrease up to 50% because of the dams. This may cause widespread famine since the delta is the main rice producer for the whole Vietnam. In 1997, China has closed down the Mekong for four days due to the dam construction, costing the Vietnamese $100,000 USD per day.

While rice fields downstream lack the rich sediment, the dams in Yunnan will be silted up. The rate of silt flowing into the Manwan dam has doubled compared to initial estimates. One of the reasons that the Chinese have used to justify the building of the Xiaowan dam is that this dam is upstream of the Manwan dam and, therefore, can reduce the amount of silt flowing into the Manwan dam. Nevertheless, the Xiaowan dam and all other dams will be filled by silt in the next few decades. All water reservoirs will become vast and useless wasteland! On average, the useful life of each dam will be shortened to about 20 years, compared to the initial estimate of 70 years. A study completed in November 2000 by the World Commission on Dams has found that most big dam projects in the world have not resulted in any economic benefits when compared to the construction costs, the resettlement of people and adverse environmental impacts.

With 1245 fish species, the Mekong river is the second river in the world with the most fish species, just behind the Amazon river in South America. Among these are rare species like the giant catfish weighting up to 300 kg and the river dolphin. Each year about 1.8 milion metric tons (MT) are caught in downstream countries. Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia alone has produced 400000 MT. The Yunnan dams will modify the water levels, temperature and cycles of the Mekong river. All these changes will adversely affect the birth and growth of all fish species. Dredging the river will also make its water flowing faster and cause the erosion of the river banks. Underwater rocks that are currently prime breeding sites for fish will be destroyed. Several fish species will disappear because they cannot adapt to the unnatural changes. Fishermen in several locations along the Mekong have already complained that their fish catch has drastically been reduced in the past few years. This is an adverse impact affecting the livelihood and health of millions of people since fish is their primary source of protein.

With the hydroelectric and navigational projects described above, China will have almost complete control of the Mekong. All these development projects will cause social, economic and environmental disasters in downstream countries, especially Cambodia and Vietnam. The survival of these countries along with the livelihood of over 60 million people will be in the hands of China. Facing with these development projects, the countries downstream often react weakly, either under political pressure from China or because of the Chinese promises of economic aid. International organizations, such as the Mekong River Commission, ASEAN, the United Nations, World Bank and Asian Development Bank, will need to force China to consider seriously and objectively all potential adverse impacts in downstream countries that may result from any development project. Especially the international banks will also need to reconsider all dam projects that they currently provide the financing, not only from China but also from all other nations as well. Most dam projects have not brought any economic benefits when compared with the building costs and the adverse environmental impacts. China needs to realize that the Mekong river is not only for upstream countries like Burma and itself, but also for downstream ones like Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. Former Premier Zhou En Lai used to say to the leaders of countries downstream: “ I live upstream and you live downstream. We all drink water from the same river. So we are like members of a close family”. The current leaders of China need to put these words into practice in order to promote mutual understanding, full cooperation and respect of interests of other countries. Only through these efforts can future conflicts, economic and environmental disasters be avoided both in Yunnan and in downstream countries and, especially, the Mekong river can be spared of a terrible death in a very near future!

Tran tien Khanh
February 2003

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