Audacious Water
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Audacious Water

Xiaowan Dam, Lancang (upper Mekong) River, China. Credit: Guillaume Lacombe/Cirad. Used under a Creative Commons license.

Are China’s Dams Taking the Mekong’s Water?

A new study & a New York Times article suggest yes. But there’s another way of looking at China’s actions — one that avoids demonization & leaves room for a transboundary solution.

The Lower Mekong River Basin is home to 70 million people. And a majority of these people depend on the river for both food and power — essential resources for launching millions of people from rural poverty into developed economies.

Scientists and other observers have long worried that dam construction on the Mekong to create hydropower energy for use and export would inevitably ruin this unique ecosystem, which produces much of the protein that feeds the people of the lower Mekong.

This past year, the Lower Mekong (Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) experienced a major drought — possibly the worst in living memory.

The New York Times recently published a story arguing that China — which has installed a series of dams on the upper basin of the Mekong — did so to create water reserves for its own uses, thus causing the drought. And indeed, Beijing holds complete control of the upper Mekong, which provides up to 70 percent of the Lower Mekong’s water in the dry season.

The argument that China is banking water against climate change is flawed for several reasons…It’s much more likely that China sees the dams as a potential lucrative source for hydropower because there is more water coming off the glaciers.

— John Sabo

The conclusions of the Times’ piece were in part based on a study of nearly 30 years of satellite data correlating annual Mekong river flow with floods and droughts downstream.

Some scientists and others are painting a pretty dire picture of an intentional resource grab by China to bank water for itself in the face of climate change and melting glaciers. These assertions are in line with other fears about the true intentions of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But there’s another way to look at this — one that’s much less black-and-white, and also still has a chance for an inclusive resolution.

What the Drought Really Means — and Why It Hurts China, Too

I see the drought as a sign of the lack of transboundary coordination between China and the Mekong’s other major stakeholders — a lack of coordination that will ultimately hurt China as much as its downstream neighbors.

The argument that China is banking water against climate change is flawed for several reasons:

  • First, the glaciers aren’t actually a big deal for the Mekong compared to other rivers in the region.
  • Second, the dams can only hold a finite amount of water — about 47 cubic kilometers worth of water across 11 dams. This is only 3/4 the storage provided by Lake Mead and Lake Powell combined and about a 2.5-year supply for upper and lower Colorado basin US and Mexico users. Water in reservoirs also evaporates, so dams would not be an effective way to store the water melting from glaciers. The result would be empty dams.

It’s much more likely that China sees the dams as a potential lucrative source for hydropower because there is more water coming off the glaciers.

So, while China is using the water to produce more energy, the gain is very short-lived.

In addition, failure to coordinate to produce a better flow for the Lower Mekong could easily have direct negative effects on China’s business interests and investments in countries whose economies depend on the river, including Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

And countries of the Lower Mekong are big tourist destinations, and China is helping develop these countries’ tourism industries. If the river were to disappear, tourism would become less attractive.

The Solution: Transboundary Coordination to Better Co-Manage the Mekong

The alternative: transboundary coordination that operationalizes better ways to co-manage and coordinate generation upstream and downstream, so all of the Mekong’s countries continue to have access to abundance for food and power.

Coordination is extremely important when it comes to water management and infrastructure development.

  • In the United States, coordination is an integral component of reservoir management.
  • For instance, we have the Tennessee Valley Authority, which controls a set of reservoirs in a highly engineered way, and the Bureau of Reclamation, which controls the reservoir system in the Colorado River Basin, including the dispatch of energy.

Nothing like that level of transboundary coordination is happening right now between China and the Mekong’s other major stakeholders, making it impossible to optimize operations for all players.

  • Currently, there is no way to know with time enough in advance to change operations in a way that’s coordinated across the basins.
  • What’s needed is the technology to support coordination of weather and dam operations across boundaries.

Right now, Future H2O is developing precisely that kind of technology — an algorithm that allows for coordination of weather and operations of dams to optimize for different needs among different stakeholders. This algorithm would provide a smart system based on deep learning that allows management of the whole basin for everybody.

Finding effective ways to support transboundary coordination is a crucial tool for protecting the lives of millions. It’s not as sexy as demonizing China. But all of the Mekong’s countries and people will win through it.

For more information about ASU Future H2O’s work and research on creating opportunities for global water abundance, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

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