Water levels in the Mekong River have fallen to “worrying” levels since the start of this year, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said last week, as the region heads into a third straight year of below average rainfall.
In a statement on February 12, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said that drought conditions, flow changes upstream, hydropower operations in the Mekong tributaries, and outflow restrictions from the Jinghong Dam in China were responsible for the fall.
“There have been sudden rises and falls in water levels immediately downstream of Jinghong and further down to Vientiane, which has been challenging for authorities and communities to prepare for and respond to possible impacts,” Dr Winai Wangpimool, director of the MRC Secretariat’s Technical Support Division, said in the statement.
The announcement followed reports last week of the Mekong running along the border between Thailand and Laos, usually a murky brown color, had taken on a bluish tinge. According to the MRC, this unusual appearance was a result of low flows, a slow drop in river sediments, and the presence of algae on the river bottom. The phenomenon was previously observed in late 2019.
While the MRC statement was careful to avoid aiming too much ire in the direction of China, the impact of the 11 upstream dams that China has built on the river in Yunnan province has recently become the subject of increasing international attention.
In April of last year, the U.S.-based research and consulting group Eyes on Earth published a study claiming that Chinese dam reservoirs had held back excess monsoon rains across six months in mid-2019, exacerbating drought conditions in the five downstream nations where more than 66 million people rely on the Mekong’s resources.
The report’s findings have since been taken up by the U.S. government in an attempt to turn regional opinion against China. For its own part, Beijing has rejected the report’s findings, asserting its own research that water stored in reservoirs during the flood season has actually helped prevent both downstream floods and droughts.
In response to the report, China also pledged to share data from it dams with the four MRC member countries: Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
In early January, shortly after a sudden sharp drop in water levels, Beijing notified its downstream neighbors that its dams were filling reservoirs and flow will be restored to “normal operation status” on January 25. But according to the MRC, water levels have continued to fluctuate unpredictably since then. The body called on China to provide more advance notifications.
“To help the Lower Mekong countries manage risks more effectively, we call on China and the Lower Mekong countries themselves to share their water release plans with us,” Winai said in the statement. It added that conditions could be restored if large volumes of water were released from Chinese dams’ reservoirs.
As climate change, drought, and the effect of Chinese dams all take hold, the Mekong seems destined to become an increasing geopolitical flashpoint in Southeast Asia, and a subject of increasing concern within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In the latest State of Southeast Asia survey of regional policymakers and elites, released last week, the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore found that 72.2 percent of those surveyed believed that ASEAN should address the challenges facing the Mekong River.
The numbers were particularly high in the lower Mekong countries, with 73 percent of Cambodians believing that ASEAN should be more active on Mekong issues, 87.8 percent of Thai respondents, and 92.6 percent of Vietnamese. The proportion in Laos was slightly lower (65 percent), perhaps reflecting the fact that the Lao government has controversial hydropower ambitions of its own.