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Mekong River Communities Struggling Due to Dams in China

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Chinese dams held back Mekong waters

Water levels on the Mekong River, which flows through China and five other countries have dropped once again. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has warned of a potential 50 percent drop in Mekong river water outflows.

The drop comes after China revealed it was testing equipment at one of its 11 dams on the upper Mekong river. A vital waterway that stretches through China and five other countries before emptying into the South China Sea.

According to the MRC’s forecast, water levels could fall by as much as 70 centimeters in Thailand and up to 25 centimeters in Cambodia by 14th.

In Chiang Khong, Chiang Rai which borders Laos and Myanmar locals witnessed sudden water fluctuation during the first week of this year; water in the Mekong increased then sharply dropped within a couple of days.

Pianporn Deetes, Thailand campaign coordinator for international rivers said that some local farmers lost their crops due to non-seasonal water fluctuation. Not only crops were affected,riverbank erosion is also severe she said.

The water fluctuation also affected migratory fish that depend on the seasonal flood-drought circle of the river. Less fish, less or no income for fishing families that depend on the mighty river. They told me this kind of damage has been “more of the same” she said.

The Mekong crucial resource for millions

The Mekong is the world’s 12th-longest river, stretching 4,350 kilometres (2,703 miles) from China in the north to Vietnam in the south.

Despite the worrying fluctuations and its impact on the river, experts said they were encouraged that China. – For the first time – made its plan known beforehand. Extending the hope of better coordination over the Mekong with countries downstream.

Brian Eyler, director of Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, said while it remained unclear what kind of dam equipment testing China was conducting However the notification suggests that dam operators were probably turning off turbines when testing their equipment. Which consequently led to the sudden drop in water levels downstream.

The water levels on the Mekong in Chiang Rai, where Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet, has been reduced by approximately 40 percent from three meters to less than one, he told Al Jazeera.

While the river would probably return to higher levels with the end of the testing, such fluctuations were a problem.

“For a river to be healthy it needs regular flow and not to be shocked with unnatural ups and downs,” Eyler said.

Such sudden drops and rises, he said, confused the natural fish movement in the river, leading to a drop in fish stock.

China’s Jinghong dam effecting the Mekong

“This, in turn, results in depleted fish stocks for fishers in the Golden Triangle which traditionally thrives on fishing for their livelihood,” he told Al Jazeera in an email.

“Erratic operations at the Jinghong Dam have also caused sudden rises in the water level over the years. This has major implications for the Mekong’s ecological processes,” he said.

The Jinghong Dam began operations in 2008 and is one of the biggest in China. Its located in southern Yunnan province on the upper reaches of the Mekong.

With the dam in operation, the ecosystem of the river has also been affected. With river grass not growing during the dry season if water is released from the dam. Because the water prevents sunlight from reaching the riverbed, Eyler added.

When the Jinghong Dam suddenly releases water during the dry season, locals who conduct riverside agriculture see their gardens flooded and eliminated,” Eyler said.

If they stored equipment along the river bank or grazed livestock there, these are often swept away.

Millions of dollars of damage are incurred and this hits poor rural farmers. Even more in ways that are hard for us city folk to understand, Eyler said.

China dam notifications

Previous testing of Mekong dam equipment had led to flash floods and drops in water levels without China informing the public in advance.

The fact that China announced it would be testing equipment this time, could indicate a shift in relations between China and MRC-countries.

“I think this is an interesting case because of the fact that China has publicly announced that this is going to happen. This is rather unusual,” he said. “I’m not sure if this is a result of the MRC-China dialogue. This sort of thing has been going on for many years, and typically China doesn’t announce it.”

At the end of last year, the MRC and Chinese Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center signed a memorandum of understanding for increased cooperation.

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