01/09/2018, 15.23
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Chinese dams on the Mekong threaten fisheries, communities

Nearly 4,800 km long, the river is the largest inland fishery and second only to the Amazon for its biodiversity. About 60 million people depend on it. Six Chinese-built barriers stud the upper part with another 11 under construction. The effects on the environment and the economy are felt the most downstream.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Communities that depend on the Mekong have complained of a drastic drop in fish catches, blaming Chinese-built dams for the problem. However, the barriers give China physical and diplomatic control over its neighbours in Southeast Asia.

Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang is expected tomorrow in Phnom Penh to lead a new regional summit that could shape the river’s future.

Nearly 4,800 km long, the Mekong is the world's largest inland fishery and second only to the Amazon for its bio-diversity.

It is also a source of livelihood for about 60 million people living in settlements along its course, which runs from the Tibetan plateau through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, until the South China Sea.

Yet, further north, it is China that controls the flows of its waters. And Beijing has already studded the river’s upper reaches with six dams and is investing in more than half of the 11 dams planned further south.

Firms have invested billions of dollars, but so far, no environmental and social impact assessments have been carried out.

Thai, Vietnamese and Laotian companies and state agencies have also benefit from their investments in hydroelectric projects.

However, environmental groups warn that by disrupting migrations and the flow of nutrients and sediments key to fish the barriers pose a serious threat to the natural habitat and local communities.

Some of the latter have already been forced to abandon their land to allow dam construction. Many others are at risk of forced displacement due to floods.

With control over the headwaters of the river – known as the Lancang in China– Beijing can dam its section of the river whilst the impact is felt downstream.

Chinese authorities can also modulate water levels, a powerful bargaining chip displayed in 2016 when China opened dam gates on its side of the border to help Vietnam mitigate a severe drought.

As the region’s superpower, China is now asserting its authority through the nascent Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) forum, whilst appeasing its South-east Asian neighbours with investment and soft loans.

Leaders from all six Mekong countries will attend the LMC this week in Cambodia.

China's foreign ministry has billed the forum, which also covers security and trade issues, as a way to foster "economic prosperity, social progress and a beautiful environment".

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