Monday, 5 April 2010

Mekong River countries meet China over dam fears

More than 60 million people depend on the Mekong River

China says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure

via CAAI News Media

By Rachel O'Brien (AFP)

HUA HIN, Thailand — Southeast Asian nations on the shrinking Mekong River began talks with China Sunday over fears that its dams are further depleting the waterway which is at its lowest levels in decades.

A Chinese delegation held talks in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin ahead of a Monday meeting to be attended by Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao and the prime ministers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Leaders are discussing management of the vast river, on which more than 60 million people depend, amid a crippling drought in the region, controversy surrounding the role of China's hydropower dams and fears over climate change.

"All the attention is on China, I think all the bilateral meetings that China's having... I think these are going to be extremely important," said summit organiser Jeremy Bird.

The summit, the first to be organised by the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) in its 15-year history, comes after the Mekong shrivelled to its lowest level in 50 years in northern Thailand and Laos.

Bird, head of the MRC's secretariat, dismissed activists' concerns that dams were behind the water shortage, but representatives for the Southeast Asian countries said better river data was needed to allay fears.

"It's mostly (about) clarification on water levels. I think there's speculation that's all, suspicion," said Thai delegate Isra Sunthornvut.

"We don't know the facts and we would like to know the facts," added Isra, an official in the Thai prime minister's office.

The Chinese embassy in Bangkok last week said China would "never do things that harm the interests of (lower Mekong) countries" and had agreed to share water level data from two dams during this dry season.

But nations in the lower Mekong basin are likely to press China for further information as well as financial help, said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Centre, which researches environmental change.

After meeting with the Chinese delegation Sunday, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said talks were "laying the foundation for future cooperative activities".

He said he was "optimistic" that China -- currently only a dialogue partner with the MRC -- would join the four Southeast Asian nations downstream as a full member-state of the organisation in future.

Leaders arrived in Hua Hin on Sunday and gathered for a gala dinner ahead of Monday's meeting, where they will sign a joint declaration of their aims, said organisers.

Myanmar is also participating in the talks as a dialogue partner.

The MRC has warned that the health of the Mekong Basin and the river's eco-systems could be threatened by proposed dams and expanding populations.

The crisis has grounded cargo and tour boats on the "mighty Mekong" and alarmed communities along what is the world's largest inland fishery.

China -- itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water -- says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure.

It has eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river in China and says they are effective in releasing water during dry seasons and preventing flooding in rainy months.

Vice Minister of Water Resources Liu Ning said Wednesday more were needed to guarantee water and food security, while 12 dams in lower Mekong countries have also been proposed.

Thailand has invoked a tough security law and has deployed thousands of troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters do not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March.

A year ago, regional leaders were forced to abandon a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) due to protests.

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