12/17/2020, 16.55
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Chinese dams on the Mekong monitored by US satellites

The Mekong Dam Monitor project seeks to safeguard the integrity of the most important waterway in Southeast Asia. For the United States, Beijing poses an “existential” threat to the region as it does to the South China Sea. US expert calls on ASEAN countries to adopt a “common position”.

Bangkok (AsiaNews/Agencies) – After the South China Sea, the Mekong River is becoming another point of contention between the United States and China with the region’s countries caught up in the game of opposing alliances.

The health of one of the most important waterways and strategic water reserves on the planet is not the only thing at stake; for US experts, the region’s integrity faces an “existential” threat.

To meet China's challenge, the Mekong Dam Monitor project, which is partially funded by the US State Department, will use satellites to track water levels at 11 Chinese dams along the 4,350 km-long river, which is a source of life for 60 million people. Findings will be published in a clear and open manner.

For the United States, it is essential to boost “transparency” about the health of the Mekong, especially for downstream countries (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam) for whom it is a vital source of water and fishing.

China’s dams are “sophisticatedly orchestrated and operated in a way to maximize the production of hydropower for sale to China’s eastern provinces with zero consideration given to downstream impacts,” said Brian Eyler of the Washington-based Stimson Center, a global think tank that operates virtual water gauges.

David Stilwell, US Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to adopt a common position vis-à-vis China. He compared their predicament to the situation in the South China Sea, where Beijing has overlapping territorial claims with several of the bloc’s members.

Speaking at the virtual launch of the Mekong Dam Monitor, Stilwell said droughts from last year had continued into this year, made worse by the coronavirus pandemic.

For example, water levels in Tonle Sap, a freshwater lake in Cambodia, were not only unusually low from April to August but also saw a 90 per cent drop in fish catches.

The monitor is an open-source online platform that will provide weekly updates using remote sensing and satellite imagery on the levels of reservoirs at 13 Chinese dams along the Mekong’s main stretch, as well as at 15 tributary dams.

For US experts, China has so far provided scant and partial information that fails to show the real picture of the situation.

“We encourage ASEAN to develop a common position on the Mekong Basin,” Stilwell said, to counter threats to the river’s very existence.

China reacted forcefully, rejecting claims that it is holding back water at the expense of downstream countries.

Asked about the monitor, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said China and other Mekong countries had in recent years overcome external “noise and interference” to boost cooperation on water resources.

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