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China denies dams caused Mekong's low levels

Report says Chinese dams upstream have disrupted the river's tide cycle, causing major ecological harm

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

UCA News reporter, Bangkok

Updated: May 28, 2020 07:08 AM GMT
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China denies dams caused Mekong's low levels

An aerial photo shows the Mekong River in Pak Chom district in the northeastern Thai province of Loei. (Photo: AFP)

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The Chinese embassy in Bangkok has dismissed the findings of a new United States-backed study that has laid the blame on China’s massive hydroelectric dams upriver for persistently low water levels in the Mekong downriver.

In the study, which was published last month by the research company Eyes on Earth Inc., a team of experts argue that through its cascade of dams China has been restricting the Mekong’s natural water flow by hoarding water, especially during the dry season.

“When drought sets in, China effectively controls the flow of the river,” said Brian Eyler, the regional director of the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C.

Last year water levels in the river plunged to record lows for months. Even during the monsoon season the Mekong’s level reached only 2.5 meters, a mere third of the usual rate of 7.5 meters.

The scarcity of water in the Mekong, which provides millions of people with their livelihoods downriver in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, has caused considerable losses in fish stocks and agricultural output.

The experts behind the study say the Chinese dams upstream have disrupted the river’s tide cycle, causing large-scale ecological harm.

By publishing the study, whose findings are in line with several other recent studies, “we aim to provide more transparency into the issue,” Eyler noted.

Through its embassy in Thailand, however, Beijing has dismissed the study’s findings, calling them inaccurate and politically motivated.

“The research by Eyes on Earth Inc. did not consider precipitation levels and complication of water flows. It does not reflect hydrological realities,” the embassy said in a statement released to the media.

“Their results are mostly calculated trends, not the actual water flows in the long term,” it added.

Chinese officials have said that record lows last year in the Mekong’s level were due to a prolonged drought, the most severe in the region in over a century.

“The groundless report [by Eyes on Earth Inc.] runs counter to facts,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang argued, citing an assessment by the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, a regional body dominated by China, that blamed droughts for the problems with the iconic river.

“There is no reason justifying the claim that China is responsible for the [water shortages] in downstream countries,” the spokesperson added.

However, the US-backed study is only the latest in a long series of studies that have highlighted the ecologically disastrous effects of China’s hydroelectric dams.

Experts, both in the region and outside it, have been warning for years that the Mekong is at risk of losing much of its rich biodiversity throughout its entire length in six nations because of man-made causes, particularly hydroelectric dams on the river.

“Everywhere you look there are indications that this river, which has provided for so many, for so long, is at a breaking point,” Zeb Hogan, a fish biologist at the University of Nevada, stressed earlier this year in an interview with National Geographic.

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