China joins study of Mekong River hydrological changes

By Viet Anh   September 21, 2021 | 04:29 am PT
China and Myanmar will join members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) in investigating reasons for droughts and floods that have hit the region in recent years.

An MRC press release said Tuesday that a major joint study undertaken by all the six Mekong riparian countries will examine changes in hydrological conditions found in the Mekong River Basin. The study was approved at a virtual meeting of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and its Dialogue Partners.

The annual 25th Dialogue Partners meeting on September 17 was attended by MRC members Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam as well as representatives from China and Myanmar.

The joint study's approval followed an earlier green light by the MRC Joint Committee and Joint Working Group of Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) Water Center on Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation.

Phonepaseuth Phouliphanh, Acting Chairperson of the MRC Joint Committee for 2021, said the need for the joint study was underscored by the Mekong River Basin’s increasing propensity for floods and droughts, which have been attributed to adverse changes in climate and water infrastructure.

He said the study would propose different adaptation measures, including better information sharing and coordination of water infrastructures, enabling the six Mekong countries to effectively address flood and drought risks and water fluctuations.

Mekong River in Kratie, Cambodia. Photo by MRC.

Mekong River in Kratie, Cambodia. Photo by the Mekong River Commission

The study will be launched formally in December 2021 and run until 2024. It will consist of two phases, the first of which will take place in 2022 and is anticipated to yield immediate recommendations for actions. The second phase, occurring in 2023–2024, will be implemented in coordination with the MRC's Strategic Plan 2021–2025.

Addressing the meeting, China's Permanent Representative to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, Ke Yousheng, said his country welcomes stronger synergy between the MRC and LMC to "better contribute to the well-being of people and sustainable development in the subregion."

The Dialogue Meeting also discussed a mechanism of joint notifications among the six Mekong countries for water related emergencies that will include water fluctuations, flood and drought.

Since 2019, the MRC has monitored changes in flow regimes that have caused water fluctuations. In response, it is tabling these findings to be discussed with member nations Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Vietnam.

Downstream countries along the Mekong River like Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand are among the top 10 countries in the world exposed to significant climate change risks, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. Drought in the basin increased in frequency and severity between 2009–2011, 2012–2013, 2015–2016 and 2019–2020, MRC data has showed.

These events have severely hit rural livelihoods and curtailed productivity, resulting in huge economic losses. Additionally, the river's hydrological regime has changed following development of hydropower cascades in the Mekong basin.

In another meeting held September 16, the MRC agreed to a new indicative date to conclude the prior consultation process of the 684-megawatt Sanakham Dam. The decision by the MRC Joint Committee means the official six-month prior consultation process that began September 9, 2019 for the proposed Sanakham Dam, will now aim to close on January 19, 2022.

The Joint Committee also agreed to a revised road map to carry out the prior consultation process, following a special session of the Joint Committee Working Group that assembled on August 30, 2021. Proposals for a rapid impacts assessment were discussed and the meeting agreed to allow the MRC Secretariat to begin the procedure immediately.

It is expected the assessment process will take two months and that a preliminary results report is due by October 29, 2021.

Dr An Pich Hatda, MRC Secretariat Chief Executive Officer, said the assessment would incorporate more recent data and information and various scenarios of the Sanakham Dam's operation, considering potential transboundary impacts caused by rapid water fluctuations of the proposed dam.

"It is anticipated the assessment will provide up-to-date information to concerns raised by member countries and the public, during regional and national consultations, about potential transboundary negative impacts and to arrive at more informed management measures," Pich Hatda said.

The Sanakham Dam is the sixth project to be submitted to the MRC’s prior consultation process. The proposed site is located some 155 km north of Vientiane and is estimated to cost over $2 billion. It is to be developed by Datang (Lao) Sanakham Hydropower company, a subsidiary of China’s Datang International Power Generation Co. Ltd.

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