Monday, September 28, 2009

China’s dams worrying S-E Asia

Michael Richardson
The Straits Times

SEPT 28 — As China prepares to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Communist Party rule this week, there are many signs of the country's growing international influence. One of the least recognised is China's role as Asia's dominant headwater power.

Geography has made China the source of some of the most important rivers that flow into South and Southeast Asia. They include two of South Asia's great rivers, the Indus and Brahmaputra, and two of Southeast Asia's — the Salween and Mekong.

All have their headwaters in China's Qinghai-Tibetan plateau, a region so high and remote that it is known as the “roof of the world”. These four transnational rivers of Asia flow for much of their early course through Chinese territory.

For Southeast Asia, by far the most important river is the Mekong. Back in 1986,when China began building the first of a series of dams on its section of the Mekong River, hardly anyone in the downstream countries paid attention. But today, as China races to finish the fourth dam for generating electricity on the upper reaches of the Mekong, concerns in the region about the possible environmental impact are rising.

The sheer scale of China's engineering to harness the power of the Mekong and change its natural flow is setting off alarm bells in Southeast Asia, especially in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos, the four countries of the lower Mekong basin. More than 60 million people in these countries depend on the river for food, water and transportation.

A report in May by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) warned that China's plan for a cascade of eight dams on the Mekong, which it calls the Lancang Jiang, might pose a considerable threat to the river and its natural riches.

In June, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva was handed a petition calling for a halt to dam building. It was signed by more than 11,000 people, many of them subsistence farmers and fishermen who live along the river's mainstream and its many tributaries.

Some analysts say that if the worst fears of the critics come to pass, relations between China and its neighbours in mainland Southeast Asia will be severely damaged. But mindful of the growing power and influence of China, Southeast Asian governments have thus far muffled their concerns. Meanwhile, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have put forward plans to dam their sections of the Mekong mainstream, prompting Vietnam to object and undermining the local environmentalists' case against China.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-governmental agency formed in 1995 by the four lower basin countries to promote sustainable development of the river, is in the midst of a cost-benefit analysis of mainstream dams, including the influence of the upstream dams in China on the river system as a whole. However, the MRC's authority is limited and Beijing has refused to join.

Although the Mekong is widely regarded as a Southeast Asian river, its source is in the glaciers high in Tibet. Nearly half of the 4,880km length of the river flows through China before it reaches Southeast Asia.

Since there is no international treaty governing use of transboundary rivers, China is in a dominant position as the Mekong's headwater power. It has the right to develop its section of the river as it sees fit, and has done so without consulting its neighbours, let alone seeking their approval.

The Mekong River basin drains water from an area of 795,000 sq km. The MRC estimates that the sustainable hydropower potential of the lower basin alone is a massive 30,000 megawatts. But it says that there are major challenges in balancing the benefits of electricity, water storage and flood control from the dams with their negative impact. These include population displacement, obstruction to fish movements up and down the river, and changes in water and sediment flow.

The cascade of dams being constructed on the upper Mekong in China's Yunnan province will generate more than 15,500 megawatts of electricity for cities and industries, replacing polluting fossil fuels with clean, renewable hydropower. The eight Yunnan dams will produce about the same amount of electricity as 30 big coal-burning plants.

The fourth of China's Mekong dams, at Xiaowan, is due to be completed by 2012 at a cost of nearly US$4 billion (RM14 billion). Rising to a height of 292m, the dam wall will be the world's tallest.

In terms of water storage capacity, the first three Chinese dams on the Mekong, completed between 1993 and 2004, are relative minnows. Between them, their reservoirs hold back just over 2.9 billion cubic metres of water.

The Xiaowan reservoir will hold 15 billion cubic metres of water, more than five times the combined capacity of the first three Chinese dams. Filling it is expected to take between five and 10 years, using half the upper Mekong's flow. When full, the reservoir will cover an area of more than 190 sq km. With a capacity to generate 4,200 megawatts of electricity, Xiaowan will be by far the largest dam so far on the Mekong.

However, by 2014, China plans to finish another dam below the Xiaowan at Nuozhadu. It will not be quite as high but will impound even more water, nearly 23 billion cubic metres, and generate 5,000 megawatts of power.

Chinese officials have assured Southeast Asia that the Yunnan dams will have a positive environmental impact. They say that by holding some water back in the wet season, the dams will help control flooding and river bank erosion downstream. Conversely, releases from the hydropower reservoirs to generate power in the summer will help ease water shortages in the lower Mekong during the dry season.

However, the UNEP-AIT report said that Cambodia's great central lake, the nursery of the lower Mekong's fish stocks, and Vietnam's Mekong Delta, its rice bowl, will be at particular risk from changes to the river's unique cycle of flood and drought.

The Cambodian lake is linked to the Mekong by the Tonle Sap river. Scientists are concerned that reductions in the Mekong's natural floodwater flow will cause falls in the lake's water level and fish stocks, already under pressure from over-harvesting and pollution.

Vietnam worries that dwindling water volumes will aggravate the problem of sea water intrusion and salination in the low-lying Mekong Delta, where climate change and sea level rise threaten to inundate large areas of farm land and displace millions of people by the end of this century.

The MRC says it has been discussing with Chinese experts technical cooperation to assess downstream river changes caused by hydropower development. But neither China nor Myanmar have joined the MRC or agreed to observe its resource management guidelines. In the case of Myanmar, this may not matter much, since only 2 per cent of the Mekong basin's annual water flow comes from Myanmar.

However, 21 per cent of the water is from China. Despite this, Beijing has so far baulked at full membership of the MRC, preferring to remain a “dialogue partner”. Full membership would intensify scrutiny of its dam plans by downstream Southeast Asian states and increase pressure on Beijing to take their interests into account.

While China's programme to dam the Mekong is moving ahead on schedule, proposals to do the same on the Southeast Asian section of the river have been put on hold. So far, only China has actually built dams on the Mekong - The largest database of products & suppliers from China

In the lower Mekong basin, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have all developed hydropower dams on rivers that flow down from mountains into the Mekong.

There are now more than 3,200 megawatts of electricity being generated on Mekong tributaries. More dams, with a generating capacity of nearly the same amount, are under construction.

The temporary economic slowdown in Southeast Asia has reduced demand for electricity. This provides a breathing space to assess how the Mekong mainstream dam projects will affect the interests of people in the river basin. But without China's full participation, no Mekong management plan can be effective.

Beijing is intent on forging closer economic integration with Southeast Asia through trade, investment, communication, transport and energy cooperation with its neighbours in the Greater Mekong Subregion. But this strategy may backfire if mainland Southeast Asians conclude that Chinese dams are having an adverse impact on their future development prospects.


Anonymous said...

Myanmar, Lao and Cambodia leaders need China support to make them in powers forever. the environment impact or livelihood of these countries citizen are not in their mind.

Anonymous said...

Communist Vietcong,Sihanouk,Mao have no any religion.

Culture Revolution - Public execution & Impact
Culture Revolution - Public execution & Impact
Catégorie : Actualités et politique
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China Culture Revolution Public execution Chine 文化大革命 Mao 1966年的中華人民共和國 1966 Zedong

Anonymous said...

We love Buddha always and everywhere.We liberate EmpireKhmer from VietCong who swallowed Champa,PreyNorkor and now Laos and AngKorWat.

Anonymous said...

It is all because Khmer people are too busy fighting with each other. It is us who allowed others to take advantage of our country and at the same time, we khmer people always listened to the outsiders about how to improve the development of our country. As we all know that others would not want us to be better off than in anyway, it is our human nature, so what do we get, we were trained to distroy our homeland and people instead, in doing so is their intention is to take away our land in the end! wake khmer people, you must think deep... right now all we need to do is try to focus on migrate intakes to increase in population grow to build a new nation of khmer so that our heritage is still there or we will have nothing left...

Anonymous said...

This can be the worst genocide in human history to come.

Anonymous said...

oh god let siem country be flooded and let tsunami destroy siem country again. thank you, god.