China has built the largest number of dams in the world, but the implementation of its plans for hydropower development of the transboundary Mekong River has become a matter of concern for the neighboring countries of Indochina, whose economic and environmental security is directly related to the implementation of China’s ambitious plans (construction of eight dams on the Mekong River and on nine of its tributaries).
Completion in 1995 on the construction of the Manwan dam was the first hydropower plant on a tributary of the Mekong, the river Lancang, and it marked the beginning of the implementation of China’s ambitious plans for the construction of a cascade of eight dams to provide electricity not only to the province of Yunnan, but also to the more remote areas of the country. Six of the eight dams have been completed or are in the process of construction.
According to some experts, these dams are built in areas where there are no roads, where there is a lack of the electricity transmission infrastructure and where the local energy demand lags behind the projected hydroelectric power capacity. Three hydroelectric plants will generate as much energy as 15 thermal coal-fired plants. And at the same time, these projects are seen by the leadership of the country as a means of overcoming poverty and a stimulus for economic development for remote areas of the country and their integration into the modern, industrial east China.
However, the impact that these projects will have on the environmental situation in the neighboring countries of Indochina, such as high water levels, the transfer of sediment (on which depends the preservation and stability of the ecosystem of Lake Tonle Sap in Cambodia and the entire Mekong) and on fisheries development is not clear, since no evaluation on the environmental impact was conducted.
Concerns over the water supply for the population of the lower Mekong basin is not without foundation. As the residents of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam believe, China built in the Syaovan dam in 2010 (one of the highest in the world) and another dam, Nuozhadu, once it is completed in 2017, China will be able to “regulate” the river flow through the accumulation of water in large reservoirs and control its supply to neighboring countries in the dry season.
In 2010, when the countries of the lower Mekong basin suffered through a severe drought, many residents accused China in exacerbating the situation by filling the reservoir of the recently built Syaovan dam. Chinese officials and developers have responded to these criticisms with an invitation to the experts from the countries of Indochina to visit the site and promised to provide more detailed information. However, this promise has not yet been fulfilled.
It is worth noting that, China in 2002, under pressure from the Mekong River Commission, a NGO environmental organization of which China is not a member, expressed its willingness to provide this international organization, of which Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam are members, regular and daily water level information in the upper Mekong in order to prevent changes in the hydrological situation in the countries downstream.
The failure by China to comply with its own promise is explained by the fact that, in its opinion, the hydrological data, and in particular the transboundary flow of the Mekong River are confidential and a matter of national security. Therefore, the implementation by China of its hydropower plans does not enhance China’s credibility from the point of view of its neighboring countries, but none wish to seek a confrontation with China for purely economic reasons; they are interested in attracting Chinese investment to its economy and in enhancing trade relationships with it. The Mekong River Commission takes a similar position and prefers not to aggravate the situation.
And China, for its turn, does not intend to abandon their plans on further developing hydropower along the Mekong. According to the international environmental organization, International Rivers, China has already planned to construct another 19 dams in the upper Mekong basin in addition to the seven that are already operational. According to some experts, “China can do anything it wants with impunity, and that’s a rather dangerous situation”. China still has not signed any agreements on transboundary water resources with its neighboring countries, fearing that would legally bind them to obligations and resulting in the loss of strategic control over transboundary water resources.
The country’s leadership is trying to convince the governments of Indochina that hydropower projects on the Mekong River are safe for them and even beneficial to help maintain the balance of the river flow in the dry and rainy seasons, and therefore there is no need to worry.
China controls 20% of the flow of the Mekong. Therefore, the fate of nearly 60 million people living in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam is now in the hands of Chinese politicians.
Natalya Rogozhina is a Ph.d of Political Sciences, a Senior Research Fellow at IMEMO of the Russian Academy of Science and a columnist for the online magazine, “New Eastern Outlook”.