U.S. Steps Up Scrutiny of Chinese-Built Dams on Mekong Basin

The U.S. is increasing scrutiny of Chinese dams along the Mekong River, its latest move aimed at helping Southeast Asian nations push back against Beijing.

The ‘Mekong Dam Monitor,’ funded by the U.S. government and run by for-profit consultancy Eyes on Earth and the Washington-based Stimson Center gathers data using satellites to provide “a near-real time picture of how major dams and the climate impact the Mekong’s hydrological conditions,” according to a statement on Monday.

China’s 11 mainstream dams are coordinated to maximize hydropower production for Beijing’s use with little consultation or consideration given to those who suffer its effects downstream, David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs said Tuesday.

“For the first time the Mekong River commission and all the residents of the Mekong will have a comprehensive approximation of the operations and impacts of the mainstream dams on the upper and lower portions of the Mekong,” Stilwell said.

Stilwell’s remarks come amid growing competition for influence between the U.S. and China in Southeast Asia, renewing claims that Chinese dams increasingly threaten the natural environments and economic autonomy of the Mekong basin. At approximately 4,900 kilometers (3,044 miles), the river runs through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam from its source on the Tibetan Plateau in China.

`Malicious Moves’

Asked about the project on Monday at a regular briefing in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said reservoirs at hydropower stations store water in the flood season for use in the dry season, “which has effectively prevented the drastic fluctuation of the discharge flow.”

“China welcomes constructive suggestions from countries outside the region on the development and utilization of water resources by Lancang-Mekong countries, but we firmly oppose malicious moves to drive a wedge between us,” Wang said.

Beijing has has spent billions over the years to build a cascade of dams throughout the Mekong that have been linked to the river’s lowest water level in half a century -- a connection it denies. For the second consecutive year, the lower Mekong basin, which supports some 60 million people, hit a record low water flow, affecting irrigation, rice production and fisheries, all vital to the region’s food security.

While an August report by the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission cites a reduction in rainfall as partly responsible for the water loss, it also says upstream hydropower dams -- mostly in China -- have held back a large amount of water. In October, Beijing signed an agreement with the commission to share year-round data on the flow of the Upper Mekong mainstream in China amid the concerns.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.