The United Nations issued a report this week warning that dam building in China is creating the largest threat to the Mekong River’s future. The report states that the proposed dam development threatens “changes in river flow volume and timing, water quality deterioration and loss of biodiversity.” The Mekong River basin provides food and jobs for 65 million people.
China is currently building a series of 8 dams in the Yunnan Province of China- the U.N. report states that the most recently completed is the tallest in the world at 958 feet high with a water capacity equivalent to all other reservoirs in Southeastern Asia. China is not alone, however. Laos has begun its own series of dams- 23 in total- with completion slated for 2010, and both Cambodia and Vietnam are planning dams of their own.
“I would like to point out that the Chinese government attaches great importance to the exploration and the protection of cross-border rivers and conducts the policy of equal attention to development and protection,” said Ma Zhaoxu, Foreign Ministry spokesman for China.
China’s Mekong River originates in the mountains of Tibet- there it is called The River of Rock. When the water crosses the border and begins flowing through the Yung-Nan Province in China it’s name changes to The Turbulent River.
South of China, the Mekong River and its tributaries provide water and irrigation for countries like Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. New and existing dams on the Mekong are beginning to turn the Turbulent River into a series of calm pools and giving rise instead to a turbulent debate over how it is managed.
While the report does recommend that all countries along the Mekong work together in protecting it against future strains like a rising population and economic development., it stops short of saying that the river is in imminent danger. Water conflicts and shortages are not currently a major issue, and the U.N. report said that at present pollution levels along the Mekong are not at “alarming levels.”
“The Mekong is in good condition at this time and can take more pressure such as irrigation development or industrial development,” said Mukand S. Babel, a report author.
Somehow this doesn’t flow. The report found that river basins in other countries downstream from China are in worse condition and that previous dams built in China have caused sharp drops in water levels on the upper Mekong.
The report seems to be saying that the lower half of the Mekong is in trouble because of dams and pollution while the damage to the top half is not yet at “alarming levels.” What result can we expect from recommending that countries currently building massive dam projects work together to preserve the river? This remains to be seen.
“The time to tackle these challenges is now, otherwise the projected growth and development may impact on the basin’s ability to meet future water needs,” said U.N. regional director Young-Woo Park.