The Mekong Commission (MRC) has said that despite China pledging not to restrict water flows from its Jinghong hydropower dam on the Mekong River until the end of August, water levels in downstream countries have decreased over the past week. However, China’s Ministry of Water Resources has refuted this, blaming the water level drop on natural factors. What’s happening?

The MRC says that the process of restricting water flows from the Jinghong dam to Mekong River appears to have started early August instead of the end of the month. In a statement, the commission said, “As this is the rainy season, the amount of rainfall we receive over a given period is important to the Mekong River levels. A sudden increase or decrease in river level, whether due to dam releases or flash floods, poses a great deal of challenges not only to accurate forecasting of river levels, but also to life in the river and riverine communities.”

The commission says that from July 30 to August 3, water levels from the river between Chiang Saen in Thailand and Vientiane in Laos decreased between 0.8 and 2.05 metres, while water levels decreased about 0.6 metres in the river from Nakhon Phanom in Thailand to Stung Treng, Kratie and Kampong Cham in Cambodia. In Chiang Khong, the river should be around six to seven metres this time of year, but it is only around three metres. 

The MRC is an intergovernmental commission which focuses on the sustainable development of the Mekong River. Members include four of the six countries that the Mekong River flows through – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. China and Myanmar are the two remaining countries. 

At the end of July 2021, China said that it planned to hold back water from the Jinghong Dam to allow for “power grid construction” but postponed this until the end of August, stating that it needed technical preparations. The initial plan was to restrict water flow from 900-1,300 cubic metres per second to about 700 cubic metres per second from July 31 to August 20, but China has not given an exact date on when the water will be held back. 

The Mekong River supports 60 million people as it flows past Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and through Cambodia and Vietnam. Beijing’s control of the upstream Mekong provides as much as 70% of the downstream water in the dry season. 

Activists Call For More Warning of Mekong River Water Interception

This latest incident comes about six months after activists called for more advance warnings from China if it wanted to hold back or release water from the hydropower dams situated along the upper Mekong, which is known as the Lancang. China has 11 dams along the upper reaches of the 4,909km waterway.

Activists have accused China of purposefully holding water back from downstream countries, affecting communities along the Mekong. They’ve called for more cooperation and better and more accurate sharing of information related to water flows. Beijing has pledged to notify the MRC and its member countries of any unusual rise or fall in water levels, and to provide any relevant information on factors that might lead to sudden flooding. 

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China Denies Wrongdoing

However, China’s Ministry of Water Resources has denied this, saying that “there is no so-called interception problem in the operation of [Chinese] hydropower stations, and it does not consume water. Instead, it scientifically regulates the run-off.” 

It continues: “During floods, it stores water properly, reduces the discharge flow and appropriately increases the discharge flow during the dry season to reduce the flood and drought disasters in the basin.” The ministry says that water fluctuations in the water level in Thailand’s Chiang Saen hydrological station were mainly caused by “interval rainfall.” 

The ministry said that from July 18 to 22, Jinghong Dam’s discharge remained stable at about 1,400 cubic metres per second, but due to the rainfall in the interval, the water level increased by 4,770 cubic metres per second within five days. This resulted in a 3.8-metre increase in water level which gradually declined. 

It added: “Currently, the Mekong River is going through the rainy season. Affected by rainfall and other factors, the water level fluctuates more frequently than in the dry season, which is a normal hydrological phenomenon.”

Further, Chinese Foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said China was providing data that was “fully open and transparent” to the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC), another platform of international cooperation set up in 2016, saying, “China has provided the Mekong countries with real-time hydrological information…and has taken the initiative to report major changes in the discharge flow.”

However, Pianporn Deetes from the non-profit International Rivers says that despite the Chinese announcement that outflows from the Jinghong Dam had been delayed, locals in Thailand’s northern Chiang Rai province had witnessed drops in water levels. 

Further, Brian Eyler, project co-lead of an American-sponsored programme called the Mekong Dam Monitor, says that according to its estimates from August 2 to 8, Chinese dams had restricted 985 million cubic metres of water to charge their upstream reservoirs, translating to a flow restriction of about 1,600 cubic metres per second which is consistent with the flow changes observed downstream in Chiang Saen. The Mekong Dam Monitor tracks water levels in dams to help communities prepare in advance of flooding events or water supply disruptions by upstream dams.

Additionally, satellite data and imagery from the monitor had shown that the major reservoirs at Xiaowan and Nuozhadu in China had been filling over the last few weeks, Eyler said.

A sudden change in river levels threatens biodiversity and fisheries, and could affect the livelihoods of roughly 60 million people living in downstream countries, making timely communication and cooperation of the flow of the river crucial. 

Deja Vu?

In 2019, a study was released that found that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries despite China experiencing higher-than-average water levels upstream. Even though satellite imagery showed that the region actually had slightly above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season, China disputed the findings of the study, saying that there was low rainfall during the 2019 monsoon season on its portion of the river. Adding to the downstream woes were sudden releases of water from China, which often came unannounced and drowned crops that had been planted near the banks because of the drought.

It is unlikely that the countries affected by water interception on the Mekong will ever have a crystal-clear view of what’s actually happening, but until China becomes more transparent and shares accurate data in a timely fashion, the downstream countries will have to contend with periods of intense drought followed by flooding and plan accordingly. In a time of accelerating climate breakdown, this could be devastating on the already-struggling downstream communities.