Several researchers have reacted with skepticism and criticism to American experts’ suggestions of Mekong downstream countries paying China for water to avoid drought.
Some said it was not just impractical but also something that would set a “bad precedent.”
In mid-February, American experts, Alan Basist, Mekong Dam Monitor Co-Lead, and Brian Eyler, Southeast Asia Program Director, Stimson Center, had suggested at the virtual event “Where’s the Water: Mekong Dry Season 2022” hosted by the Stimson that countries in the Lower Mekong should try to reach an agreement to pay China for water releases during times of crises like droughts.
This way, downstream countries could use an insurance representative to assess the economic cost that China has when it releases water from dams and make financial contributions to create a fund that offsets the financial loss to China and ask Beijing to release water, they said.
Chainarong Setthachua, an expert on the Mekong at Mahasarakham University, Thailand, said the idea was “far from achievable” based on the current situation in the Mekong River.
On the one hand, Setthachua explained, if China accepts this agreement, it means that Beijing admits its dams upstream cause negative impacts on downstream countries, including drought, which it has always denied.
In fact, China contends that those dams “benefit” irrigation systems in lower Mekong, though the public knows that this is not true. Additionally, China has been denying its responsibility for drought and other crises in the lower Mekong regions. It has also refused to become a member of Mekong River Commission (MRC).
On the other hand, said Setthachua, countries in the lower Mekong may not want to proceed with the “water buying” suggestion as it could be seen as “confronting” China, because Beijing is their big partner in the region.
Lastly, the MRC has never listed “Chinese dams” among reasons causing drought downstream, citing climate change as a clear cause. Therefore, the agreement of buying water from China is not a big issue for MRC.
“So I would say it is impossible to implement it.”
In recent years, MRC has repeatedly asked China to cooperate with downstream countries to find solutions for droughts and floods in lower Mekong, without explicitly accusing China’s dams for causing those problems.
On Jan 13, MRC called on China and Southeast Asian nations to better coordinate management of Mekong hydropower dams and reservoirs after three years of record low flows and extra dry conditions, Reuters reported.
Dao Trong Tu, former deputy general secretary of the Vietnam National Mekong Committee, said the feasibility of a water buying agreement was quite obscure.
Downstream countries should clarify how much water is needed to reach a target area, for example, how many cubic meters that China releases will reach Vietnam’s Mekong Delta.
Regarding the idea of water release in the wet season, Tu warned that it may cause the state of “added floods”; “enough water” in Vietnam may cause floods in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.
David Blake, co-author of the book “Water Governance Dynamics in the Mekong Region” published in 2016, said he opposed the idea because it would not benefit downstream countries.
He said China could quite easily exaggerate the level of what it was foregoing and extract excessive payments from lower Mekong states. In reality, Beijing has never been transparent about its dam construction plans, dam operational regime and other key aspects of its program of hydraulic control on the upper Mekong.
Blake also felt “buying water” will do little or nothing for the Mekong’s wild capture fisheries, because water releases would not mimic the natural flood pulse of the Mekong, as it is most likely that they would occur when water was least available in the downstream basin for irrigation, navigation and salt flushing purposes in the Delta in the dry season and not when the fish need them most for lifecycle functions.
Also, the water releases would not change the capture of sediments and nutrients in the reservoirs, which are an important reason for the decline in the fisheries and aquatic productivity of the lower Mekong.
As someone who has conducted research around water resources issues in the Mekong Region since 1990, Blake said as far as the Mekong river’s fisheries are concerned, to all extents and purposes, the major damage has already been done by existing dams. The river was already suffering a massive and ongoing crash in aquatic biological productivity, which would continue to decline over the coming years.
Blake said he was afraid that once a payment precedent was set, it would surely encourage the same “kidnapper” to capture more “hostages” (other transboundary rivers, for instance) and repeat its unilateral actions, and would in effect be getting rewarded for its selfishness.
He said the public should not forget that China never consulted with any of the downstream riparian states, much less for their permission, which a responsible state would do, when it went ahead and built all the mega-dams that now block and hold back the river’s flow.
“This would not be a good way to proceed.”
Risk of disunity
Blake also said that four countries in the lower Mekong, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, may not be able to come to an agreement on how to equitably split the payment based on potential economic losses and gains.
“It would be too expensive, I suspect.”
Also, it would set up a potential precedent, if it was carried to its logical conclusion, of Cambodia, for instance, having to pay for water held back in large dams in Laos and Vietnam.
Expressing similar concerns, Tu wondered how countries would pay for water release by China if they do not benefit from that release. For instance, if Vietnam needed water but Thailand, Laos and Cambodia upstream did not, how would the situation be managed?
With a river length of 2,000 km flowing through four countries, such an agreement would difficult to carry out.
“It will become a difficult issue for them (countries involved) to separate interest and financial responsibility.”
Instead, Tu stressed the importance of China and related countries being willing to cooperate with each other.
He said several countries, including Vietnam, joined the Convention on the Law of the Non-navigational Uses of International Watercourses, which entered into force in 2014. However, China ignored it.
“In reality, the application of conventions is not easy.”
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