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A study has found that China’s Mekong River dams held back large amounts of water during a damaging drought in downstream countries in 2019 despite China experiencing higher-than-average water levels upstream. 

US-based research company, Eyes on Earth, conducted a ‘Wetness Index’ observational study, which looked at the wet season period from May to October and found that the severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet season of 2019 was largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the upper Mekong during that time.

China disputed the findings, saying that there was low rainfall during last year’s monsoon season on its portion of the 4 350km river.

However, satellite imagery of surface wetness in China’s Yunnan province, through which the Upper Mekong flows, suggest the region in 2019 actually had slightly above-average combined rainfall and snowmelt during the May to October wet season. 

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Mekong River, China: the Conflict

Last year’s drought, which saw the Lower Mekong at its lowest levels in more than 50 years, devastated farmers and fisherman and saw the river recede to expose sandbanks along some stretches, with some parts drying up entirely when fishing should have been plentiful. At one gauge in Chiang Saen in northern Thailand, such low water levels had never been recorded before. 

Alan Basist, co-author of the report, and his colleague studied this gauge over a 28-year period and calculated that dams in China had held back more than 410 feet of river height. 

The 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. 

“If the Chinese are stating that they were not contributing to the drought, the data does not support that position,” stated Basist. “There was a huge volume of water that was being held back in China”, Basist added. 

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. Local fisheries have complained that their catches have faced a very steep decline, while agriculture harvests are stagnant as a result of the persistent droughts and unpredictable floods.

Studies by the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental organisation that works with governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and the sustainable development of the river, further predicts that the decrease of local agricultural production will result in these countries being over-dependent on China for food imports, ‘making them even more vulnerable to Chinese influence’. 

In February, the Chinese foreign minister had asserted to regional foreign ministers that China was suffering from the drought as well. He added that even in the unprecedented times of the coronavirus outbreak, the government was being magnanimous in sending water downstream’. Basist, however, refutes this claim.

“You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia,” he said. “China can regulate this river flow through dams and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing”. 

He adds, “The satellite data doesn’t lie, and there was plenty of water in the Tibetan Plateau, even as countries like Cambodia and Thailand were under extreme duress. There was just a huge volume of water that was being held back in China.” 

Today, the Chinese section of the river in the southwest of the nation has 11 damns, which produce more power than the region needs. These water reserves in China are swelling, as dam reservoirs fill with the glacial melt that has fed into the River for thousands of years.

Basist says, “Glaciers are bank accounts of water but with climate change they’re melting fast. The Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.”

Since China doesn’t have any formal water treaties with countries in the lower Mekong regions, cooperation between the countries is poor. The Mekong River Commission works with the governments of Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam, but China is noticeably absent.

As cities are forced to adapt to the challenges of the climate crisis, communities are moving away from traditional engineered responses to using ecosystem-based adaptation services.

Communities worldwide have become more vulnerable to extreme weather conditions and natural disasters caused by climate change. The Global Climate Risk Index 2020 reported that globally, 495 000 people have died as a direct result of more than 12 000 extreme weather events. The index also reported that the world economy has lost US$ 3.54 trillion (in purchasing power parities) from 1999-2018 due to extreme weather conditions. In the past, engineered solutions have been implemented to mitigate the effects of the climate crisis. However, local communities are now adapting through natural solutions called ecosystem-based adaptation (EbA). 

Ecosystem-based adaptation services involve using natural services provided by the local ecosystem to help minimise the impacts of climate change on local inhabitants and biodiversity. The approach aims to provide long-term ecological and socio-economic benefits to local residents. A briefing released by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) shows that EbAs are economically viable solutions as they can be more cost-beneficial than engineered solutions. Currently, EbAs are being implemented in a range of ecosystems, including mountains, coasts, wetlands, drylands and urban cities.

Examples of Ecosystem-Based Services:

Madagascar’s Blue Forest

For decades, mangrove forests in Madagascar have undergone high rates of deforestation for urban development, agricultural purposes and wood use. Globally, mangroves are declining at a rate of 1-2% annually, however, in comparison to previous decades, the rate of mangrove loss is in decline. This could suggest growth in awareness among communities of the importance of mangroves. Mangroves are sinks which are able to sequester more carbon than other kinds of forest systems and at times up to 3-5% more carbon than upland tropical forests. Studies suggest that mangroves also have the ability to adapt to three millimetres of rising sea levels annually. Because of their resilience, mangroves are now being used as a tool in the fight against the climate crisis.

Madagascar has restored 1 200 hectares of mangroves to adapt to rising sea levels and to facilitate large amounts of carbon sequestration. The country implemented a combination of engineered and ecosystem-based approaches. To combat rising sea levels, along with the restoration of the mangrove forest, a 1 km sea wall has been built as a defence in the cities of Manakara and Toamasina to reduce coastal erosion. The initiative of combining approaches has resulted in a more resilient coast line.

The Cloud Forest of Xalapa

Xalapa, a city situated in the foothills of Mexico, has also embraced EbA, in partnership with the UNEP. The city is surrounded by a cloud forest, an indigenous rainforest located in the mountainous regions. The forest plays a major role in carbon sequestration and in providing water to the inhabitants of Xalapa, controlling the water flow. Trees also reduce the frequency of landslides and erosion through soil retention, which in turn prevents flooding and droughts.

Due to deforestation, the forest has been reduced to one percent of its original size. Locals are threatened by the climate crisis as changing temperatures and irregular rainfall has caused landslides in the urban settlements nearby. Reports suggest that by 2039, the forest could experience a temperature rise of 1.8 which will be detrimental to the ecosystem, as well as to local farmers. To minimise the damage caused by these landslides, the city is working to restore the cloud forest and use the trees as an ecosystem-based adaptation tool for. Restoration efforts include planting montane forest species on the mountain slopes, planting native riparian plants along streams to conserve the soil, and building ditches and berms for soil retention and improved water infiltration.

Urban Wetlands of Laos

Laos has been frequently impacted by urban flooding as a result of the climate crisis, which has been detrimental for the economy; the total damages and losses caused by flooding in 2018 cost the economy an estimated US$371 million, exacerbating poverty and placing further pressure on resources. Laos clearly needs a long-term solution should flooding become the norm for the country (as it appears to be becoming) and in mid-November, the UNEP announced a project in the cities of Vientiane, Paksan, Savannakhet and Pakse, that will help 10% of the country’s population become resilient to climate change.

The project takes an alternative route from the traditional urban management approach implemented through infrastructure. Instead, the goal is to restore 1 500 hectares of urban wetland and stream ecosystems; these ecosystems play a major role in regulating water flow and filtration and restoring them will reduce the flooding that has been plaguing the country. The Deputy Director-General of the Department of Climate Change at the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of Laos, Syamphone Sengchandala, stressed the importance of the project, saying: “This project offers hope for the future by recognising that nature provides some of our greatest defences against extreme weather. The question is whether we can learn to protect these natural services, and this project is a major step forward.”

As the pressure of the climate crisis mounts, communities around the globe are trying to develop new methods to become resilient. Ecosystem-based adaptations are approaches that have shown to be effective in mitigating the effects of the climate crisis, and allow communities to flourish and maintain their livelihoods despite the difficulties posed by it.

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