The people of the Mekong region countries have seen the Mekong water level drop to their lowest points in more than 100 years due to the severe drought in 2019, coupled by China’s hydropower dams blocking the remaining water coming from the Tibetan plateau. Water flowing from upstream China contributes about 70% of downstream water in the dry season but the building of a series of dams on the upper part of the river by China manipulates the natural flow of the river. (The Mekong is called Lancang in China)
China’s agreement to release water from its dams on the Mekong River has painted China’s action in a much more benevolent light. In contrast, the recent report by research and consulting company Eyes on Earth Inc., notes the exact opposite of what China claims. The study shows that the 11 upstream Chinese dams on the Mekong have directly caused record low water levels in the lower Mekong countries.
Incidentally, China has denied that their cascade of dams had any impact and shifted the blame on the lack of rainfall and climate change.
China and its neighbors are in dire need of more water in the future, while the present situation is that they all have increasingly less water at their disposal. In February 2020, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said his country has also suffered from the arid condition. “China has overcome various difficulties to increase the water discharge of the Lancang River and help Mekong countries alleviate the impact of the drought,” Wang told a meeting of the Lancang Mekong Cooperation group. China’s refusal to share vital data regarding its water management decisions with the downstream countries makes the issue one of great concern. What has happened in the Mekong region countries could be the future of all the other riparian countries that derives its water from the Tibetan plateau.
China control over the water tower of Asia
Many of Asia’s largest Rivers originate in the glaciers of Tibet. Tibet, “The Water Tower of Asia” serves as a source of numerous major Asian river systems: The Yellow, Yangtze, Mekong, Brahmaputra, Salween, Sutlej, Irrawaddy, and Indus River. These rivers provide water to 1.5 billion people. From the mountains in Tibet, they flow into Bangladesh, China, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam, etc. China, through its presence in Tibet, can control both the quality and quantity of water that reaches its downstream neighbors. Since the start of the 21st Century, China’s dam-building activities have shifted from dam-saturated internal rivers to international rivers flowing out of the Tibetan plateau.
Both at the 12th Five-Year Plan (2011-2015) and 13th Five Year Plan (2016-2020), China’s state council energy plan has approved an array of new dams on all of the major Asian rivers, which originate on the Tibetan plateau and flow to South Asia and Southeast Asia. Even the upcoming 14th Five-Year Plan vigorously push forward the hydropower project on the seismically active Tibetan plateau. Xie Kechang, a senior fellow at the Chinese Academy of Engineering, notes that non-fossil fuels energy generation will be the main focus of demand growth over the next FYP period (2021-2025), as the country aims for non-fossil to provide for about 20% of total energy consumption by 2030. Much of that non-fossil generation will originate from hydropower and nuclear energy sources.
Some 80 percent of China’s hydropower potential lies along the high-flow, glacier-fed rivers of the Tibetan plateau. Such a dam-building spree disrupts Tibetan communities through displacement and submergence of sacred sites. Dams there bring minimal local benefits because most of the power goes to smog-choked cities in the east. Besides it also has a huge impact on the downstream countries. Hydropower dams will have an immense impact on downstream fisheries, river ecologies, and agricultural systems that depend on the natural, sediment-filled flood pulse of the river.
A lesson for the other riparian countries
China has not signed any water-sharing agreement with any of the neighboring countries and also been one of three countries that have voted against the UN watercourse convention. Instead, Beijing claims that the upstream nation has the right to assert absolute territorial sovereignty over the water on its side of the international boundary or divert as much water as it wishes for its needs- irrespective of effects it has on the downstream countries.
The Mekong, which is known as Zachu in Tibet, has its source in the Zatoe, Northeastern part of Tibet. From its source in Tibet, this river flows into six countries- China, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Around 60 million people lives are dependent on the river and derive an income from it in the Lower Mekong Basin countries. It is also amongst the most bio-diverse rivers in the world. The drought situation of the Mekong because of Chinese dams is a great example of China’s misappropriation of international rivers in the name of national sovereignty. It deprives the rights of the people living in the downstream countries.
Until recently, there was no evidence of the impact of China’s use of the river on the downstream countries but the latest reports by Eyes on Earth, a water resources monitor, has produced numerous statistics as well as satellite imagery which highlights the adverse impacts China’s dams have had on these countries. Furthermore, the report reveals that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries last year despite China having higher-than-average water levels upstream. Overall, from the satellite data from 1992 to 2019 (28 years) and daily river height gauge from Chiang Sean, Mr. Basist and his colleague who compiled the report, calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height.
China began building the first series of dams on the Mekong River in 1986. Since then, Chinese dams have lowered water levels, disrupted sediment flows, and damaged the health of fisheries in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. In Thailand, fishermen along the border with Laos have reported that the river has become unpredictable since China began upstream dam construction.
Based on such reports, there is a strong argument to be made that the fluctuation in river levels is not seasonal but rather dependent on China’s activities upstream. China has long planned to build 19 of the world’s tallest dams on its upstream portion of the Mekong. 11 of them are now complete, the most recent being the 990MW Wunonglong Dam on Diqing Prefecture, Yunnan province. If combined, the completed dams could generate 21,310 MW of electricity. Seven of the remaining planned dams are in Tibet and will store runoff of melting Himalayan glaciers into the next decades. Hydropower development on the Mekong River is not sustainable, as it contributes to social injustice and does not take into consideration the real social and environmental impacts of such projects.
Future of downstream countries
China’s hunger for energy and control over its rivers to establish itself as a regional hegemon has sparked a new wave of plans for a dozen mega-dams along the mainstream of these transboundary rivers. Besides its impact on the environment, these plans enable it to subdue its neighbors and increase its presence in the region’s political and geographical sphere.
Beijing’s lack of transparency about its dam-building project and disinterest in formally cooperating or engaging with its lower riparian states in multilateral forums could lead to droughts and water fluctuation in the downstream countries, as the recent past has shown. This could be a new normal for the countries that get its water from the Tibetan plateau. Another great river that begins in the icy reaches of the Tibetan plateau, like the Brahmaputra, have also been dammed by China. Apart from the environmental consequences, there is an emerging strategic component of the dams, one that has reduced Southeast Asian nations’ leverage vis-à-vis China and supplements its wider design for the neighboring region.
*Dechen Palmo is a research fellow at the Tibet Policy Institute. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Tibet Policy Institute.