A tourist ship travels along the Mekong River at sunset in Phnom Penh on April 22. An estimated 200 million people depend on the 4,350-kilometer-long river. (Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP)
China’s frenzied damming of the Mekong River upstream for hydroelectricity generation has had devastating consequences for people living alongside Southeast Asia’s longest river, experts say.
The authors of a new study explain that the cascade of dams on the upper part of the river has altered the natural flow of the Mekong, which has caused grave environmental harm and is threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people in six countries.
The two scientists, Alan Basist and Claude Williams, reached this conclusion by examining satellite data from 1992 to 2019 as well as river height gauge data at Chiang Saen in Thailand.
“Currently 126.44 meters of river height is missing at the gauge in Chiang Saen over the 28-year record,” the authors note in their report, which was published by the UN-backed Sustainable Infrastructure Partnership and the Lower Mekong Initiative, a multinational partnership among affected countries.
“Huaneng Hydrolancang, a Chinese state-owned enterprise, built a series of dams on the main stem of the Mekong during that time,” they add.
China constructed the first dam on the upper part of the river in 1992 and now operates 11 dams along the Mekong. It is planning to build yet more dams to generate hydropower.
The two experts say that river water is stored in large amounts at the reservoirs of the Chinese dams upstream, holding it back from countries downstream.
This has led to a permanent alteration in the river’s natural flow, causing “some of its lowest river levels ever throughout most of [last] year,” they write.
China has denied these claims.
An estimated 200 million people depend on the 4,350-kilometer-long river, which originates in China and passes through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before it empties into the South China Sea in Vietnam.
Last year a prolonged drought saw the water level of the Mekong plunge to record lows for weeks on end, jeopardizing the livelihoods of fishermen and the food supply of riverside communities who rely on the river’s water for agriculture.
“China’s dam management is causing erratic and devastating changes in water levels downstream,” notes Stimson Center, a US-based think tank.
“Unexpected dam releases caused rapid rises in river level that have devastated communities downstream, causing millions in damage and shocking the river’s ecological processes.”
By cutting off water upstream, China is causing massive and irreversible environmental damage to the lower Mekong, stresses Fitch Solutions, an American risk assessment and financial consulting company.
“We believe that the resultant threat to food security from this damage will put upside pressure on inflation for countries downstream in the Mekong River,” Fitch Solutions wrote in its own report this year.
“The destruction of the natural ecosystem would also spur a shift in economic activity along the riverbanks away from agriculture and towards manufacturing and hospitality services such as tourism.”
This trend could deal further blows to the environmental health of the mighty Mekong and to the well-being of people who live alongside it.