May 04, 2016

Water diplomacy by China offers drought relief

By:  The Nation (Thai), March 19 2016

China has embarked on an unprecedented "water diplomacy" mission to alleviate the ongoing drought in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam by discharging massive quantities of fresh water downstream from one of its dams in its southern region.

The emergency water supply from the Chinese Jinghong hydropower station will last one month from March 15 until April 10, marking the first time China has informed downstream countries in advance of its water-discharge schedule, said Nuanla-or Wongpinitwarodom, director of the Mekong River resources management office at the Department of Water Resources.

China had sent letters to all four member-countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) of its water-discharge plan to help ease the shortage of fresh water in downstream countries. The MRC consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, while China and Myanmar are dialogue partners.

China has never before informed MRC countries of its water resource management plan, she said, adding Chinese authorities also had expressed an intention to work more closely with downstream countries to solve their problems.

"Previously, we only learned of changes in the water level when told by residents in Chiang Saen [which borders Laos and other neighbouring countries]," said Nuanla-or.

China also assigned its diplomats in those countries to inform each government of the water discharge.

According to the Thai official, China has become more transparent in managing the cross-border water resources. Previously, downstream countries were critical of the lack of Chinese cooperation and transparency in water resources management as many dams were built upstream in Chinese territories, affecting water flow downstream.

Vietnam had urged China to discharge more water downstream to help ease the shortage of water, as the country needs fresh water for agriculture. According to Xinhua, the Vietnamese have hailed China's water discharge in Mekong River as a cooperative move, with a senior official, Pham Hong Giang, saying the distance from Jinghong Hydropower Station to Vietnam's Mekong River Delta is very long and there are many dry areas in need of water along the way.

The Mekong River originates in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Since late last year, these countries have suffered from drought due to the impact of the El Nino phenomenon.

In Chaing Saen district in Thailand's northern province of Chiang Rai, the water level in Mekong River started to rise rapidly on March 15 from 2.30-2.50 metres to 3.29 metres yesterday evening, benefiting the operation of river boats in China, Laos and Thailand which borders Laos and Myanmar.

The Chinese dam is about 325km long from Chiang Saen and about 2,000 cubic metres of water have been discharged per second from the upstream dam. Thai residents near the Mekong River have been informed in advance of the rapid rise of water level, which affects agriculture and fisheries in the waterway.

Meanwhile, Thai non-governmental organisations and residents have urged the MRC to include their representatives during meetings on water resources management while suggesting that massive discharge of water also has a negative impact on their way of life, affecting the seasonal activities during the dry season.

Jirasak Intarayos, coordinator of the Rak Chiang Kong group in Chiang Rai province, said local residents were never told of the cross-border water management plan but previously learned about the water discharge from Chinese boat operators.

"We have been campaigning for more than 10 years to have a representative voice on the MRC. We think China should not claim credit for discharging the water downstream. We want advance information on water management plans," he said.

Pienporn Deetes, coordinator of International Rivers, said there must be a regional cross-border mechanism to discuss preparatory measures on the management of Mekong River as various countries have built dams that affect the future of Mekong River, including two new dams in Laos.

Meanwhile, Hu Weizhong, a senior official of Changjiang Water Resources Commission, said the dams on the upstream Mekong River in China play a very essential role in flood and drought prevention in the Mekong River Basin, especially when the region is facing threats from climate change.

"The dams have four main objectives: sustaining the aquatic ecology; generating hydropower; saving water for agriculture, industry and domestic consumption; and more importantly preventing flood and drought," Hu said.

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