Sound of the Wolf From the Headwaters of Lancang River
The Chinese embassy spokespersons’s remarks on the “Mekong-related Media Report Targeting China” released on 5 July 2019 and the Mekong River Council (MRC)’s recent news release on the decreasing water flow from China’s Jinghong station on 3 July 2019 are not coincidental. They are, instead, carefully released around the same time to support the legitimacy forChinato reduce discharge from the Jinghong Hydropower Dam by claiming that its action is for the people of the lower Mekong basin and for the better international relationships:
“The construction of cascade reservoirs on the Lancang River is an effective measure against climate change. The cascade hydropower stations which ‘discharge water in the dry season and store water in the wet season’, are able to help adjust the water level of the Lancang-Mekong River. Through scientific regulation, the average outflow of the Lancang River in the dry season could be 70% higher than that under natural conditions, and in the wet season 30% lower than that under natural conditions, reducing effectively economic losses caused by the abnormal fluctuation of water level of the Mekong River to the riverine communities.” The remark further added that the construction was also “for the benefit of the people in the region and good cooperation in the sub-region.” The MRC, similarly, announced that no major impact on the lower Mekong region was expected as the discharge from the Jinghong Hydropower Dam reduced.
The author strongly disagrees with the remarks released by the Chinese Embassy and the MRC as they were biased towards the two entities only. The story is not very different from the story of the Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing. Here’s why:
First, China has started constructing hydropower damson the mainstream Mekong River since 1993. The first completed hydropower dam is Manwan Hydropower Dam. Up to present, China has built 9 dams. (However, the Chinese government attempts to deter the label to “Cascade Hydropower Stations” instead of using the word “hydropower dams.”). The total electricity generation capacity of these 9 dams is as much as 15,757.50 megawatts. They store more than 40,000 million cubic meters of water. Nonetheless, we cannot overlook the total number of dams proposed by China—including those completed, constructing and proposed. The plan includes as many as 37 dams with total electricity generation capacity of 31,467.50 megawatts. As for China’s plan for the cascade hydropower stations, the author would like to emphasize 6 notable dams namely: Gonguoqiao,Xiaowan,Dachaoshan,Manwan, Nuozhadu, and Jinghong. The reservoir of each dam is 510, 14,560, 920, 890, 22,400 and 1,233 million cubic meters consecutively. The total water storing capacity of these 6 dams is as much as 40,513 million cubic meters (an equivalent of 3 Bhumipol Dams, Thailand’s largest dam).
Ever since the beginning of hydropower dam construction on the mainstream Mekong River in China (or Lancang River), the implementation and planning process were conducted solely by the Chinese government. The decision making process was not participatory. The people of the lower Mekong region was never involved in the process. As the hydropower dams were completed and significantly altered the natural flow of the Mekong River, impacts on the downstream communities visibly arose. For more than a decade, downstream communities have been criticizing the impacts of these hydropower dams on the mainstream Mekong River. Yet, the Chinese government refuted. Instead, the Chinese government proposed a new discourse claiming “the outflow of the Lancang River accounts for only 13.5% of the runoff at the estuary of the Mekong River” and the dams “discharge water in the dry season and store water in the wet season” in order to reduce damages caused by floods. The most recent discourse created by the Chinese government is “Shared River, Shared Future.” Such discourse appears as if the lower Mekong communities are indebted to China.
The Chinese government must re-examine her understanding on the Mekong River. China thought she was a large nation situating on the headwaters of the Mekong River and began building hydropower dams for her own interests without conducting any consultation or participatory process with the people in the lower Mekong region. Such action could not be considered a constructive move for the interests of the people or for harmonious cooperation in the region. The discourse “Shared River, Shared Future” is not that different from the Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing.
Secondly, the Chinese government’s remarks is a discourse that lacks accountability. On one hand, there has been no details or data to support the Chinese government’s statement: “the outflow of the Lancang River accounts for only 13.5% of the runoff at the estuary of the Mekong River.” The statement attempts to show that the outflow of the Lancang River is not significant and cannot cause great impacts on the Mekong River. In reality, the average outflow rate ought to be 16%. China has maneuvered us into confusion when she talks about the outflow percentage because the rate fluctuates based on which water station records the data. If the water level is taken at the nearest water station to China, Chiang Saen Water Station (which is located only 200-km away from the Chinese border), the outflow from China is as much as 90% in the dry season and more than 50% in the rainy season. The outflow percentage constantly decreases as the Mekong River moves further away from the Chinese border and meets its tributaries downstream. By the time the Mekong River reaches the Delta in Vietnam, the outflow from China only account for 16% (an annual average). Note that China controls all the hydropower dams within her territory. This means that those dams can store and control as much as 40,000 million cubic meters of water per year. This stake plays an important role in determining how much water China would release. Specifically, when China claims she could “adjust the water level to be 70% higher than that under natural conditions, and in the wet season 30% lower than that under natural conditions,” the statement only reflects how hydropower dams normally operate. The adjustment is not a result of a participatory decision. The control of the Lancang River water level is not only regulated by Jinghong Hydropower Dam; it is regulated jointly by the 6 cascade hydropower stations.
For the past 26 years since the day Manwan Hydropower Dam started storing water and generating electricity, the water level of the Mekong River, especially in the dry season, fluctuates all the time. This has destroyed the natural flow completely. Damages and losses occur and repeat. In Thailand, even if the Mekong River runs for more than 1,500 kilometers from Chiang Rai to Ubon Ratchatani and even if the water level increases during the dry season, these two incidents cannot guarantee any benefits to the ecosystems and the people of the lower Mekong region. Only China claims these benefits.
Thirdly, the damages and impacts on the ecosystems and the people of lower Mekong region are real. The Chinese government claims the cascade dams has helped “reducing effectively economic losses caused by the abnormal fluctuation of water level of the Mekong River to the riverine communities.” In the opposite, the abnormal fluctuation of water level means downstream communities cannot foresee when China will release water from the dams. This, in fact, has caused acute damages and impacts on the natural ecosystems and economy of the people. When Manwan Hydropower Dam begins holding water and generating electricity in 1993, the water level at the Chiang Saen Water Station dramatically reduces. By the end of March and May, the water level of the Mekong River decreases to almost zero meter (on the scale). The water level of the Mekong River abnormally changes every year. The change becomes more and more apparent in the rainy season when all the 6 large hydropower dams are being built and finally completed. This article will illustrate the damages and impacts of Chinese large hydropower dams through 3 incidents. (See Figure 1 for the 3 incidents).
The First Incident: The Chinese hydropower dams released an abnormally large volume of water in December 2013.
The Chinese hydropower dams released an abnormally high volume of water resulting in a sudden rise of the water level between 13 and 17 December 2013. The Chiang Saen Water Station in Chiang Rai recorded a continuous increase of the water level for five consecutive days. On 13 December 2013, the water level was 3.76 meters. The number climbed to 6.96 meters on 17 December 2013 and slowly returned to its normal level, 3.78 meters, on 21 December 2013. In total, it took 9 days before the Mekong River to return to its normal level.
As the water level at Chiang Saen rose, the water level downstream gradually rose. Mekong riverine ecosystems and communities—situating along the 800-km course of the Mekong River between the Chiang Khan Water Station in Loei and the Khong Chiam Water Station in Ubon Ratchatani—were all affected by the rise of the water level, especially the riverbank agricultures, fishery and public utilities.
A study was conducted during that time to understand the impacts and damages as a result of the water level rise. The study found that when the Mekong River flowed swiftly than usual, there were a large amount of foamy-like air bubbles, wood logs, plastics and even trees with roots. The Mekong River was turbid. In some areas, the river appeared red. Oil sheets were also observed on the river surface. The study conducted surveys to understand the impacts on local riverine communities in 14 tambon (subdistricts) targeting villagers who made a living by fishery (161 persons), riverbank agriculture (140 persons) and fish farming (43 persons). The study found that all of the interviewees were affected by the abnormal rise of the Mekong River water level. The impacts are categorized as follow:
- Impacts on fishery: Each person lost approximately 8,495 baht in income. The damages on fishing gears were estimated to be at least 1,426 baht per person.
- Impacts on riverbank agriculture: Riverbank farms were inundated. This meant the investments and expenses for that crop season, at the rate of 2,964 baht per person, were flooded away too. It was estimated that each farmer could earn at least 9,245 baht if they could sell theflooded yield.
- Impacts on fish farming: The rise of the water level wiped out the fish farmers’ investments immediately at the rate of 47,000 baht per fish farmer because the sudden rise caused the fish to die.
The abnormal rise and fall of the Mekong River also caused damages on irrigations and community public water supply system. As the Mekong River rose suddenly, village water pump stations stuck on the riverbank instead of remaining on the surface of the water. A large amount of wood pieces, wood logs and plastics flooded down to riverbank communities. A large amount of local public budgets had to be delegated to move the village water pump stations back to the Mekong River.
The Second Incident:The Water Level of the Mekong River Abnormally Rose and Fell Between January and April 2019.
The abnormality of the water level of the Mekong River becomes more apparent every year, especially during the winter and dry season. In 2019, the water level between January and April continuously rose and fell for 4 months. Significant damages and impacts are as follow:
The water level rose between 5 – 11 January 2019 to 2.05 meters at the Chiang Saen Water Station. This caused severe negative impacts on riverbank agricultures as it was during the beginning of the cultivation season and nearly all of the vegetables were flooded. After the water level ebbed, farmers were not confident to invest in another crop cycle because they feared the Mekong River would rise again.
The water level rose between 12 February and 30 March 2019 to 1.93 meters at the Chiang Saen Water Station. The duration was as long as 48 days. This meant the sand bars and rapids in and along the Mekong River were underwater at all times. Local tourisms and local economic system were hit the hardest due to the flooded sand bars and rapids. The financial impacts were beyond what we could calculate.
The water level fell shortly between 7 – 11 April 2019 after the Chinese hydropower dams reduced the discharge to support the water festivals in downstream countries. However, this action could neither recover the riverine sand bars and rapids to their natural conditions or suitable for tourisms nor recover local economic losses. We should also remember that the Chinese government has been reducing the discharge from the Jinghong Hydropower Dam around this month for many years already for, as China claimed in April 2018, maintenance reason.
The Third Incident:Decreased Discharge From the Jinghong Hydropower Dam between 5 – 19 July 2019.
On 3 July 2019, the MRC stated on its website that the Jinghong Hydropower Dam planned to halve its discharge between 5-9 July 2019, from 1,050 – 1,250 cubic meters per second to only 504 – 600 cubic meters per second. Consequently, the discharge would return to its normal rate between 17 – 19 July 2019. The announcement headline explained that “water flow from China’s Jinghong station to fluctuate, but no major impact is expected.”
However, the MRC’s water level graph from Jinghong Hydropower Dam shows clearly that the water level has been reducing since the beginning of June 2019. The reduction did not just started in early July. The graph also shows that the water level is even lower than the water level records ever since 2008 (Figure 2).
For this third incident, regardless of which reasons the Chinese government used to explain the water level reduction, the common fact for the Mekong Region is the little amount of precipitation and the halt in precipitation in the beginning of the rainy season, compared to the historical data. What this means is the reduced discharge since early June is for storing water in the reservoirs of the large 6 hydropower dams in China—for China’s direct interests only.
Even though it is the rainy season, but the water level is drying out. This clearly reflects the influence of China’s hydropower dams on regulating the river flow. China cannot further use her unaccountable discourse, “the outflow of the Lancang River accounts for only 13.5% of the runoff at the estuary of the Mekong River.”
July is the month when the Mekong River rises to feed her tributaries. Fish of the Mekong starts to migrate and seek habitats for breeding, laying eggs and juvenile fish nursery. But as the Mekong River is drying out and there is no water to feed her tributaries, the spaces for fish habitats inevitably decrease as well. This will have immense effects on the abundance and diversity of the Mekong fish in the near future and in long term.
There are many examples to illustrate the effects on riverine ecosystems. For example, in Tambon Ban Muang in Sangkhom District, Nongkhai Province, aquatic plants in the Mekong River like Homonoia riparia Lour. start to dry out and die. The water in the riverbank pond (Bung) is also drying out. This has caused a large number of deaths among the fish and aquatic lives—an incident that locals have never experienced before.
The drying Mekong River also impacts riverbank agriculture in the long term. The Mekong River once regulate weeds on the riverbank by flooding them for a long time. This kills the weeds naturally. However, as the Mekong River water level is not as high as before or lasts as long as before, weeds survive. This has taken the opportunities to utilize the riverbank away from locals. Or, if locals would like to use the riverbank, they would highly likely apply herbicide. This would add on the costs while increase pollution to the environment.
In summary, the hydropower dams in China has nearly completely controlled the flow of the Mekong River to the point she reaches Nong Khai, Thailand. The discharge from the hydropower dams has irreversibly changed the flow of the Mekong River. The change has already impacted the ecosystems—sand bars, rapids and micro-ecosystems—and the abundance and diversity of fish and aquatic lives. In addition, the hydropower dams in China retain more than 90% of the sediments. However, these sediments are crucial nutritions to downstream agriculture. The most significant impact is on the local economy of the riverine communities that once rely on the river. None of these impacts can illustrate the economic benefits China has claimed.
Today, China’s glory is nothing but the wolf at the headwater of Lancang Jiang who attempts to fabricate what is right for the downstream Mekong River countries. China uses discourse to make the people of the lower Mekong region to accept the fate that the Mekong River has irreversibly changed. The Chinese has a word for this kind of action:
自私自利(zi si zi li) implies everything for self, selfish-profits, not sharing. This is how China treats the Mekong River today.
 Translated from เสียงของหมาป่าจากต้นน้ำหลานชางเจียง (Full article) by Montree Chantawong, the Mekong Butterfly, 17 July 2019.
 The Council Study on Hydropower, MRC, December 2017
 Yunan Hydropower Expansion ; Update on China’s energy industry reforms & the Nu, Lancang & Jinsha hydropower dams , Chiang Mai University’s Unit for Social & Environmental Research & Green Watershed, Kunming, PR of China, March 2004 https://understandchinaenergy.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/Dore-Yu-Yunnan-Hydropower-Expansion.pdf
 State of the Basin report, MRC, 2010 http://www.mrcmekong.org/assets/Publications/basin-reports/MRC-SOB-report-2010full-report.pdf
 State of the Basin report, MRC, 2010, page 73