Dam monitor could help Mekong countries put China on notice

By Viet Anh   December 28, 2020 | 09:00 pm PT
The Mekong Dam Monitor's impact will depend on how downstream countries use it, experts say.

The Mekong Dam Monitor (MDM), part-funded by the U.S. and which uses data from cloud-piercing satellites to track water levels in dams in China and other countries, was launched on December 14.

The information is available to everyone in near real-time.

The Mekong River flows 4,880 km from its origins in Tibet, 2,130 km of it in China, where it is called Lancang. The river flows south through Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

Of the 19 hydropower projects China has planned to build on the Mekong, 11 are already operational. The Stimson’s Mekong Infrastructure Tracker, released in June last year, said 102 dams have been built on the Mekong River.

China owns or has partial ownership of 6,900 MW of dams in Laos. 18 of those dams are already operational (2000 MW total), two are under construction (246 MW total), and 23 are planned (about 4,600 MW) totaling 43 dams.

Dao Trong Tu, former deputy general secretary of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, said the Mekong Dam Monitor project was first introduced in a regional forum five years ago and it included "wonderful elements."

It would help countries know about activities in the river's upstream areas and provide an overall picture, he said.

Downstream countries could use the MDM to discuss cooperation in water sharing with Beijing, seeking, for instance, release water at a time of drought in the basin or warnings in case of floods, he said.

The monitor might help speed up discussions about collaboration between China and the four members of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam. Beijing is a dialogue partner of the MRC and takes regular part in meetings.

"At first China may object to the monitor but could adjust some of its activities in the long term if Beijing sees it has convincing data," Tu said.

He noted that China has shown some positive signs such as agreeing with the MRC to share year-round data on the flow of its portion of the waterway.

Chinas Nuozhadu dam in upstream Mekong river. Photo by Bqaz.yn.gov.cn.

China's Nuozhadu dam in upstream Mekong river. Photo by Yunnan Relocation and Resettlement Office.

Brian Eyler, energy, water, sustainability program director at the Stimson Center, which operates the MDM, said he and his colleagues expect more transparent, near real-time delivery of dam operations data to strengthen the negotiating capacity of downstream countries.

"The basin has seen repeated climate-based crisis exacerbated by the impacts of dams. The monitor helps parse out and underscore the effects of dams."

It is up to downstream stakeholders to find a way to bring China to the table and negotiate for more equitable operations of the upstream dams, especially in times of need, he said.

Ultimately, related countries have to wait and see whether and how China reacts to the monitor, he added.

Alan Basist, president, Eyes on Earth, a partner of the Stimson Center in this project, said the monitor could allow all stakeholders to receive relevant information on the natural and altered flow of the river so that they could find compromises on how to allocate water resources more equitably throughout the lower basin.

In future hiding data would be of limited benefit to any country that is secretive since the information could be revealed without their contribution, he pointed out.

Ensuring stability and supporting the integrity of the Mekong basin from its headwaters to its delta is essential for the countries in Southeast Asia, he said.

It is generally advantageous to cooperate, and there is a good chance that China would see that as a good neighbor it could benefit from the hydroelectric capacity that has been established on the upper Mekong while supporting the integrity and vitality of the Mekong throughout the entire basin.

Dr Aaron Salzberg, director of the Water Institute, University of North Carolina, the U.S., said the monitor would also encourage downstream countries to share information about what they are going to do and how they're going to operate them.

He pointed out that when downstream countries have vital interests, they have an obligation to manage this river cooperatively and work more closely together. For instance, he said, Cambodia wants to protect its fisheries and Vietnam wants to protect its delta and other resources.

"It's important to know in advance when countries are going to be changing their operations."

Chainarong Setthachua, an expert on the Mekong at Thailand’s Mahasarakham University, said the monitor with scientific data could provide more evidence for people to understand the large-scale development on the Mekong River, particularly dams in China and Laos.

As a result, he expected China and downstream countries to listen to local people's complaints about the impacts on the mainstream.

No country publicly criticizes China's dams and new dams are still allowed in the lower Mekong, he said.

"Governments may be more concerned about the issues in the near future, but are not currently."

China always claims its dams benefit downstream countries while in reality they have very adverse impacts, he quoted researchers as saying.

Extra monitoring

Tu said since Beijing could reject the accuracy of data from the monitor, which is funded by the U.S, its competitor in the great power rivalry, downstream nations and the MRC should play a role as parties having a direct interest in the matter.

"They should develop similar monitors."

Salzberg agreed that China could reject the monitor's data as incorrect leading to a need to ask it to show its own data. It is not difficult for the MRC and its members to have a similar monitor, and they should be created, he said.

Downstream countries and the MRC should work together to analyze data from the monitor, he said. They could also arrange meetings with China on a regular basis to talk about how they operate their dams, he said.

Every three or four months related nations could meet to review their plans for how they're going to operate major infrastructure, he said, pointing out that in some basins in the world, countries exchange data every three months, every month or even daily.

Scientists across the Mekong and the world could look at the monitor and make their own conclusions from its data, he added.

Basist said measuring the water level in the Mekong is not easy since the flow is dependent on many factors like soil, vegetation, topography, snow, temperatures, evaporation, and groundwater supply, but the monitor has one advantage: the wetness index.

Stimson and Eyes on Earth might not understand the "internal mechanisms" of the water flow in the basin or how it is flowing below and on the surface, but the wetness index seems to be a very good indicator of how much water is accumulating in the basin, he said.

It provides 90 percent confidence in how much water would be flowing downstream under natural conditions, and is a very good measure of integrating all those complicated factors into one variable, he said.

He welcomed the idea that China, the MRC and downstream countries should have similar monitors. All countries could cooperate on a plan that enables data transparency, and should influence the future of what type of data and cooperation is available to all stakeholders, whether local communities, NGOs or governments, he said.

Those operating the MDM would love to work with China if it is willing to do field studies and campaigns, he said.

Natural flow

The Mekong Dam Monitor is expected to emphasize the benefits of natural river flow everywhere in the Mekong basin.

Basist explained however that natural flow would never occur when there are dams on a river since their basic purpose is to block this flow and release it at times that are beneficial for their operators, irrigation or hydropower generation.

Thus, with such huge dams in China, it is unrealistic to expect natural flow, he said.

The Mekong River is being hugely impacted by all these dams and reservoirs and the alteration of its flow, he said.

The dams need to be operating in a way that could at least better replicate the natural flow, and if countries know what the natural flow should be through the model, they could ask nations to at least have some kind of minimum standard in this regard, and reestablish the integrity of the river, he said.

Setthachua suggested that downstream countries should highlight the significance of the natural flow of the river in discussions with China, saying it is more important than sharing data about water quantity.

There need to be floods in the rainy season and low water levels in the dry season, he said, pointing out that the river’s ecosystem has many types of sub-ecosystems that are crucial fish habitats. Along Thailand's border with Cambodia and in some parts of Vietnam, forests need to be flooded during the monsoon season, he added.

"We cannot see the Mekong river as a canal."

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