Earlier this week, I wrote about the sudden drop in water levels along the Mekong River in northern Thailand, and their likely link to the filling of a dam reservoir upstream in China.
The fall first became apparent on January 4, when locals in the Thai port town of Chiang Saen, close to the Golden Triangle confluence with Laos and Myanmar, reported an unexpected one meter drop in the water level along the river. The drop was quickly confirmed by the U.S.-funded Mekong Dam Monitor, which employs remote sensing and data from satellites to track water levels along the Mekong.
The monitor claimed that river levels in the Thai town of Chiang Saen had fallen by “more than 1 meter” between January 2 and 4, and that the drop came as Chinese dam engineers began filling of a reservoir at the Jinghong hydropower dam in Yunnan province on December 31. The Jinghong dam is the southernmost of the 11 large dams that the Chinese government has built on its stretch of the river, which it calls the Lancang.
The monitor also claimed that Beijing had apparently not notified lower Mekong governments that it would be restricting the river’s flow, seemingly contradicting the Chinese government’s earlier promises to share hydrological data with downstream nations and inform them of disruptive dam operations in advance.
Shortly after my piece was published, news emerged that China had indeed notified downstream countries – but only five days after water levels first began to fall. According to a Reuters report, China sent Thailand’s National Water Command Center a notification on January 5, informing it that its Jinghong Dam would reduce its water discharge rate by about 47 percent from January 5-24.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC), a coordinating body that counts Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as members, also received a notification the same day, informing it that the river level would likely drop by about 1.2 meters, affecting navigation and fishing. The MRC said that according to the Chinese notification, the flow would “be gradually restored to its normal operation status on January 25.”
The belated timing of the notification, some five days after the filling of the Jinghong dam’s reservoir began on December 31, suggests that it probably came in response to media coverage of the drop in the river’s level.
It is hard to understand why China didn’t send downstream nations a notification before then. After all, China has every incentive to assuage downstream nations’ concerns about its upstream disruptions.
Over the past year, the Mekong dam issue has been taken up by the United States government in an attempt to turn regional opinion against China and paint it as a bullying power. In so doing, the Trump administration has broadcast recent research claiming that in 2019, Chinese dam reservoirs held back excess monsoon rains, exacerbating historic drought conditions in downstream nations, where more than 66 million people rely on the Mekong and its resources.
Does Beijing care about the impact its dams are having downstream? Perhaps not. There’s not much that the lower Mekong nations can do to ameliorate the fact that China is both more powerful than they are, and occupies the headwaters of a river upon whose resources they rely. But this would also seem like an issue on which Beijing could give some ground, at little cost to itself, if only to assuage the wider region’s concerns about Chinese actions and intentions.
A charitable reading of the events is that the wires somehow got crossed between Jinghong, Beijing, and the lower Mekong countries, and that it will take time to streamline Mekong data sharing. If China’s notion of “a community of common destiny” is to have any substance whatsoever, the Chinese government will need to act fast in improving these lines of communication.