Buy water from China, American experts advise downstream Mekong countries

By Viet Anh    February 15, 2022 | 07:13 am PT
American experts are recommending that countries in the Lower Mekong reach an agreement to pay China for water releases during times of crisis.

"Countries in the lower basin Mekong River could make financial contributions to create a fund that offsets financial loss to China and ask Beijing to release water," Alan Basist, Mekong Dam Monitor Co-Lead, said in at a virtual event titled "Where's the Water: Mekong Dry Season 2022" hosted by the Stimson Center Tuesday.

"This kind of arrangement has been done in different parts of the world successfully," Basist said, citing three examples: the U.S.'s agreement with Mexico to release water to maintain the integrity of flow and quality of water in Mexico; agreements on water sharing around the Limpopo in South Africa; and water treaty agreements between India and Pakistan.

He explained that downstream countries could use an insurance representative to assess the economic cost that China has when it releases water from dams.

"Payment is in line with impacts that would happen, so China basically gets compensated for the lack of hydroelectric production while countries downstream get the benefit of maintaining the integrity of flow. So it's a benefit to all parties," he told VnExpress International.

"Before an insurance policy can be reached there has to be a treaty... Let's take time to develop but there is potential for cooperation. The insurance program would be the further expansion of the treaty agreement, to guarantee critical flow during times of drought."

Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia Program Director and Mekong Dam Monitor Co-Lead, Stimson Center, said he had discussed with Basist the "compensation" issue, given the fact that half of the Mekong water storage is in China and the easiest solution for obtaining downstream relief is cooperation with China.

The Mekong has suffered three years of extremely low flow and drought during the wet season. When wet season flow is low, the Mekong's fisheries and agricultural productivity suffers the most. Low flow and drought are mostly caused by a lack of rainfall but upstream dams also contribute to wet season droughts by storing significant amounts of water, Eyler said after the conference.

"During times of crisis and drought in the wet season, a mechanism should be put in place to have dams release some or all of their storage in order to restore the river's natural flow."

Data show that during times of low wet season flow, upstream releases could increase flow to Cambodia by 10 percent and this would provide relief to fishers and farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam, he said.

A farmer in a dry rice field in Ben Tre province, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

A drought hit rice field in Ben Tre Province, Vietnam's Mekong Delta, March 2020. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

‘Sudden shocks’

Eyler noted that Jinghong, China's closest dam to downstream countries, recently released and restricted water suddenly in areas along the Thailand and Laos borders. It caused not just a gradual rise of the river, but "sudden shocks" to the river level.

In 2021, there were 22 times when upstream dams in China administered such sudden shocks, increasing river water levels by more than 50 centimeters, or decreased the level by as much.

One of the major concerns, Eyler said, was the adverse ecological impacts that this would have, including existential threats to critically endangered species. The destruction has already been seen in the form of bird nests alongside the river destroyed, giant fish flushed out and trees dying in large numbers.

Comparing data between 2018 and 2020, Eyler said China's dams operated the same way regardless of the conditions downstream, taking a larger amount of water out of the river.

"This is very concerning."

He said China has completed 129 dams on the river, 11 of them the largest mainstream dams. Most of the Mekong water, as much as 56 percent, is held in China.

Cooperation is key

Nguyen Huu Thien, an independent consultant based in Can Tho, a city in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, said climate change has complicated the Mekong system, but hydropower dams will make it even more so. In the context of climate change, countries will see more extreme events like El Nino and La Nina where rainfall is low and then hydropower dams do not have sufficient water to run their turbines.

Basist stressed that countries along the Mekong River not only sees lower water flow because of dams but also a huge impact from the lack of rainfall and snowmelt that would occur during the wet season. Climate change has shown significant negative impacts over the last several years. In addition, land use is another factor affecting water flow.

Therefore, he said, related countries are dependent upon cooperating with each other to solve relevant problems. They need to start looking at it as an integrated system, not just who can hold water back for purposes that benefit their own country. Countries need to promote communication and understanding to figure out how to effectively work together and maintain the integrity of the river.

Cooperation is the key for such management, he added.

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