NOT FOR THE first time, there is concern that China’s hydro dam-building on the Mekong river is causing environmental harm upstream and low water levels downstream. And not for the first time, Beijing is pouring money on troubled waters.
Multiple hydroelectric dams are being built along its course and its tributaries, mostly in China, which calls the upper reaches of the river the Lancang, but also in Laos, which aims to be the ‘battery of Asia’.
Beijing rejects the accusation that it causes drought conditions downstream, where the low water levels are damaging agriculture and fisheries. The Mekong is the world’s largest inland fishery.
However, two days ago, Premier Li Keqiang (seen in the screenshot above) told a video meeting of the China-led Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) initiative that Beijing was willing to offer more assistance on water resources, road, rail and river transport connectivity and public health to its Southeast Asian neighbours.
He also said that China would share data on the river waters year-round, and not just during flood season. The intergovernmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) — which involves Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam and has mostly been elbowed aside by the LMC — has called for year-round data for some time.
Mekong river nations’ leverage over China is limited. Water shortages would have to get far worse for the downstream countries to risk jeopardizing their relations with Beijing by pressing it over its dams.
Laos is unlikely to compromise on its hydropower ambitions, since electricity exports bring in much-needed foreign currency. At the same time, Thailand and Vietnam will be keen to keep importing Lao hydroelectricity to power their industrial development.
Undoubtedly, it is Beijing’s vision that is driving the development of the river. This encompasses not only dams but also development projects, special economic zones and trade that will integrate the region into the Belt and Road Initiative.
At some point, that might tempt the United States to look for means to deter companies and banks involved.