China releases water to parched Mekong countries

A family looking for fish in a nearly dry canal in the southern Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang, on March 8, 2016.
A family looking for fish in a nearly dry canal in the southern Mekong Delta province of Soc Trang, on March 8, 2016. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK • China has embarked on an unprecedented "water diplomacy" mission to alleviate the drought in Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam by discharging massive quantities of fresh water downstream from one of its dams in its southern region.

The emergency water supply from the Chinese Jinghong hydropower station will last till April 10, The Nation newspaper reported yesterday.

China had sent letters to all four member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) on its plan to help ease the shortage of fresh water in downstream countries. The MRC consists of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, while China and Myanmar are dialogue partners.

This marks the first time China has informed downstream countries in advance of its water discharge schedule, the newspaper quoted Ms Nuanla-or Wongpinitwarodom, director of the Mekong River resources management office, as saying. She added that the Chinese authorities had also expressed an intention to work more closely with downstream countries to solve their problems.

"Previously, we only learnt of changes in the water level when told by residents in Chiang Saen," she said. Chiang Saen in Chiang Rai province borders Laos, Myanmar and other neighbouring countries.

China also assigned its diplomats in those countries to inform each government of the water discharge, said the report.

According to the Thai official, China has become more transparent in managing the cross-border water resources. Previously, downstream countries were critical of the lack of Chinese cooperation and transparency in water resources management as many dams were built upstream in Chinese territories, affecting water flow downstream.

Vietnam had urged China to discharge more water downstream to help ease the shortage of water, as the country needs fresh water for agriculture.

Xinhua news agency reported that the Vietnamese have hailed China's water discharge in Mekong River as a cooperative move, with senior official Pham Hong Giang saying that there are many dry areas along the route from the Jinghong hydropower station to Vietnam's Mekong River Delta.

The Mekong River originates in China and runs through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Since late last year, these countries have suffered from drought due to El Nino.

In Chiang Saen, the water level in the Mekong began rising rapidly last Tuesday, from 2.3-2.5m to 3.29m on Friday evening.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'China releases water to parched Mekong countries'. Subscribe