Asian Countries Blame Chinese Dams for Drought

Saturday, April 3, 2010

A severe drought in Southeast Asia and southern China has caused the Mekong River to drop to a 50-year low. Here, a farmer's son sits on a drought-hit rice field in the suburbs of Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, last month. (Hoang Dinh Nam, AFP / Getty Images)

Dave Thier

AOL News (April 2) -- International tensions are heightening as five provinces in Southwestern China as well as a number of countries in Southeast Asia are experiencing a crippling drought.

The drought has left 18.05 million people and 10.17 million livestock short of drinking water, according to China Daily. In an affected area that contains about 7.73 million hectares of arable land, the crisis has also led to a severe food shortage as crops go unwatered and fishing streams run dry.

Still, while Chinese officials attribute the drought to a shortage of rainfall, a group of other affected countries are more inclined to place the blame on China. Some are saying that China's construction of several dams along the Mekong River, a crucial water source for the entire region, is the reason why the crisis has escalated so severely.

According to Thailand's Bangkok Post, erratic water-level changes and ecosystem disruption in the Mekong can be traced back to the early 1990s -- around the time China completed its first dam on the river, in 1992. The author also suggests that the Manwan dam could have played a role in another drought that occurred from 1992 to 1993.

This weekend, representatives of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam will meet to discuss the drought. Some have said China's characteristic unwillingness to divulge information has hampered other countries' ability to understand the situation. According to The New York Times, a Thai representative will request "more information, more cooperation and more coordination" from China.

Rivers that flow through multiple countries are often flash points for international tension, and an editorial in The Nation suggests that it might not be the biggest country in the region that's to blame.

"For instance, a dozen new dams are planned for construction in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Who is acting as watchdog over these projects?" ask the editors. While pouring billions of yuans and man-hours into drought relief, the Chinese government has stepped up media relations to emphasize that the drought is only a natural phenomenon.

"China will never do things that harm the interests of [lower Mekong] countries," Chinese Embassy representative Yao Wen said at a forum in Bangkok, Thailand.

China is expected to defend its dams at the summit, arguing that they actually help by releasing water during the dry season and help to control floods. Vice Minister of Water Resources Liu Ning said at a press briefing that more dams, not fewer, would be the answer to guaranteeing water security.

Despite recent investment in renewable energy and other green technologies, food supply and environmental degradation have plagued the rapidly expanding country since the late '50s, when Mao Zedong's infamous "Great Leap Forward" led to a famine that some believe killed as many as 38 million people. In recent years, China has struggled with widespread desertification and water quality and air quality problems.


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