Flooding Threatens Countries along Mekong River

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By Chua Siew Joo

Aug. 27 – According to the Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN), residents and environmentalists in Thailand have expressed suspicions that dams in China and destruction of small Mekong river islands to clear passage for Chinese cargo ships have contributed to severe flooding in the Mekong basin countries.

This year, Thailand experienced its worst flood in 100 years, causing an estimated damage of THB223 million. Large areas of Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam were also inundated.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC), established by Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam in 1995, has since issued a statement in August accruing the abnormally high water runoff in the northern part of the Mekong basin following heavy rainfall to the tropical storm Kammuri.

Despite their reassurance, many conservationists and villagers are likely to be skeptical. In 2007, fearing that the six proposed dams on the Mekong River could displace up to 75,000 villages and harm riverine biodiversity, a coalition of 175 environmental and civic groups appealed to the MRC to release any studies done on the effects of the dams. The MRC was unresponsive.

Premrudee Daoroung, director of the Bangkok-based environmental group TERRA told China Daily that the growing energy appetites of the Mekong basin economies motivated the revival of 13-year old plans to build hydroelectric power stations in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia.

The Mekong River originates from the Tibetan Plateau and flows through six developing countries of China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam into the South China Sea. Of which, Thailand, Vietnam, Laos are gradually converging into a single economic zone with the potential to be an economic hotspot.

MRC member countries are managing the resources for tourism, hydropower, navigation and water supply that the Mekong provides. At the recent Greater Mekong Sub-Region (GMS) Business and Investment Dialogue in Vientiane, the six nations sharing the Mekong agreed to improve the investment climate of the region to attract more foreign direct investment and facilitate cross-border movement of goods and people.

The region's potential needs for electric power makes investment in hydroelectric power a lucrative business. Laos, which accounts for 38 percent of the annual flow of the Mekong stands to gain from this potentially lucrative business.

In May 2008, the Asian Development Bank and Australia pledged a grant of US$1 million to help Laos develop the tools needed to manage their resources from the Mekong.

China recently completed its new hydropower station on the Lancang River in June 2008. The Jinghong Hydropower station has the combined generating capacity of 1.75 million kilowatts. China also plans to build 14 power stations on the river with a total capacity of 22.6 million kilowatts.

Zhang Guobao, the National Development and Reform Commission vice minister and chief of the energy bureau told Xinhua, “[Chinese] developers have paid great attention to the trans-border impact from hydropower development from the beginning”.

China only became a dialogue partner of the MRC in 1996. In 2002, the country signed an agreement to provide hydrological information on the Mekong River. China now provides water level data during the flood season from two stations located on the Upper Mekong

In the wake of the devastation caused by the floods, the Mekong River nations still have much to do in terms of hazard mitigation and achieving a more sustainable growth for the region.