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China And The Mekong: A Tale Of Two Rivers

The Lancang has been dammed twice already in Yunnan, a 1,500 megawatt Manwan Dam (pictured) finished in 1986 and the recently completed 2,850 megawatt Dachaoshan Dam. Thailand has built the Pak Mun Dam on the Mekong while Cambodia and Laos both have hydroelectric projects on the drawing board. There are reports that China may build as many as 12 more dams on the Lancang to supply power for the country's insatiable energy demands.
by Edward Lanfranco
Beijing (UPI) July 6, 2005
The future of the Mekong is a tale of two rivers, the upstream half known as the Lancang belonging to China, and the downstream remainder shared between five countries of Southeast Asia.

The river's fate is a story of the geopolitical economy formed at the confluence where China's environment, border security and development policies converge. Analysts see it as a cautionary tale and are not optimistic about the long-term prospects based on past performance.

While most of the world has woken up to China's emergence as a major commercial power, few realize the country also holds a key position of influence over its neighbors in South and Southeast Asia with its control and stewardship of the one natural resource humans can't live without: water.

The highlands of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau are the source of the Yangtze, Yellow, Salween and Mekong, four of the world's great rivers. This region of China also has critical tributaries which flow into the Indus, Ganges and Brahmaputra.

In China the Mekong is called the Lancang Jiang, meaning "Turbulent River." Its source lies more than 17,000 feet above sea level in the Jifu Mountains of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai province where the river is known locally as the Dza Chu.

The river thunders down through deep gorges in the eastern portion of Tibet and north-south through western Yunnan province leaving China at an elevation of 1,640 feet.

After the frontier town of Guanlei, the Lancang becomes the Mekong, forming part of the China-Myanmar-Laos border.

The river accounts for a large portion of the boundary between Laos and Thailand, passes through Cambodia into Vietnam where it spills into the South China Sea at the Mekong Delta. It is a key artery for the countries of Southeast Asia as a means of transportation, fishing and agriculture.

Chinese premier Wen Jiabao hosted the second summit meeting of the Greater Mekong Sub-region (GMS) in Kunming, Yunnan province on July 4-5 bringing together the prime ministers of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The theme of the gathering was "A Stronger Partnership for Common Prosperity."

The GMS was created by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1992 as a way of enhancing economic cooperation and social progress among Southeast Asian nations that rely on the Mekong as their lifeblood.

The bank has invested over $1 billion in projects building infrastructure, facilitating trade and investment, environmental protection as well as education and training.

China shares political boundaries with 14 different nations, thus border issues are a cornerstone of its foreign policy.

Concomitant to its rise as an industrial colossus, China has used this new wealth to sponsor one multilateral institution, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia, and is positioning itself to take the leading role in the GMS to expand its influence in Southeast Asia.

In both cases the country is projecting its economic power to ensure its territorial security.

At a foreign ministry briefing before Wen's trip, United Press International asked Assistant Minister Shen Guofang to compare China's participation in the two organizations.

"Geographically and in the nature of the countries concerned, these two organizations are quite different," Shen began. "We hope in the future the GMS could grow into a relatively stable organization featuring practical cooperation," he added.

Shen stated GMS development depended on "further actions after the second summit." He then noted "at present all the six members have a shared desire to establish a regional cooperation organization, but as far as the present conditions are concerned, it may not be as complete as SCO in terms of its personnel and institutions."

The assistant minister said the GMS was in still its preliminary stages and needed to establish further communication, coordination and contact mechanisms.

"This organization will not be exclusive in nature," Shen promised. He added: "We hope it will also strengthen relations with ASEAN and other organizations, and that in practical cooperation, GMS will further encompass contact with the SCO as is it the desire of the SCO to strengthen relations with GMS."

In his address to the GMS on Tuesday, Wen said that China "not only pursues its own development, but seeks common prosperity for all countries." While relying mainly on its own resources, China also needs better cooperation with its neighbors, the premier added.

The need for electricity to power economic development poses the greatest challenge to the future sustainability of the Lancang-Mekong Rivers. China's strategy is underpinned by controversial energy production and distribution plans for the region.

Hydroelectric dams on the river raise concerns about erosion and navigation, water flow for fishing, as well as sediment vital to farming. Described by one environmental group as "a flagship initiative of the ADB's GMS program," an estimated $1 billion dollars will be spent on the Mekong Power Grid project.

It involves the creation of a regional grid fueled primarily by hydropower plants in Laos, Myanmar and China to meet the growing demand in Thailand and Vietnam as well as China's Yunnan, Guangxi and Guangdong provinces.

The Lancang has been dammed twice already in Yunnan, a 1,500 megawatt Manwan Dam finished in 1986 and the recently completed 2,850 megawatt Dachaoshan Dam. Thailand has built the Pak Mun Dam on the Mekong while Cambodia and Laos both have hydroelectric projects on the drawing board. There are reports that China may build as many as 12 more dams on the Lancang to supply power for the country's insatiable energy demands.

Susanne Wong with the U.S.-based International Rivers Network told UPI: "Our main concern is that this multi-billion initiative to create a regional power grid and trading system is proceeding without public disclosure or debate to determine whether this is the best energy option for the region.

"It relies largely on hydropower projects although cheaper and more effective energy options exist. Benefits to Thai power consumers are expected to be marginal, and implementation plans are optimistic at best."

China's track record on water issues does not inspire confidence. In June Sheng Huaren, a vice-chairman from the National Peoples Congress gave a grim assessment of China's water resources in the state-run press.

"Last year, water from half the tested sections of China's seven major rivers was undrinkable because of pollution," Sheng said. The State Environmental Protection Administration found that five of China's seven major rivers, the Haihe, Liaohe, Huaihe, Yellow and Songhua rivers were seriously polluted. The vice chairman added the state of the Yangtze and Pearl rivers was not much better.

Citing the Ministry of Water Resources, Sheng said over 300 million rural residents do not have access to safe drinking water, and about 190 million people drink water containing harmful contaminants.

Sheng called on the government to set detailed goals to prevent water pollution and spend more in western regions, the upper reaches of rivers and poverty-stricken areas.

Speaking at a climatology seminar in late June, Luo Yong, deputy director of China's National Climate Center warned that temperatures may climb as much as 3.4 degrees Celsius in the Sanjiangyuan region of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau. The place name refers to the area where the Yellow, Yangtze and Lancang-Mekong rivers all originate.

Luo said climate change and human activity will lead to massive shrinking of glaciers, accelerated thawing of permafrost and the early melting of spring snows.

He urged authorities to pay close attention to the issue and its potential downstream impact, recommending scientists push forward research to protect the Sanjiangyuan ecosystem and look at its future sustainability.

China's lack of government transparency on hydropower projects includes little tolerance for public debate before they start, followed by crackdowns and attempts to cover up civil unrest over corruption or mishandled compensation and relocation plans once they get underway. The Lancang is one of many turbulent streams Chinese leaders are trying to control.

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