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Is China holding water & causing drought?

Actions by China have been described as compounding a 2019 Mekong River drought that had severe impacts on livelihoods in downstream nations. China is accused in an April 2020 US government-funded study of restricting water flow from 11 upstream dams, affecting approximately 60 million people live in the Lower Mekong where agriculture and fishing are the principal sources of support. Ordinarily, seasonal drought in China eventually becomes a seasonal drought in Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, while abundant water in China causes floods in the Mekong basin, as water is released from dams.

The report describes China’s upper basin as having high rainfall and snowmelt while China’s upstream dams restrictions while lower Basin countries experience severe drought conditions from April to September 2019. The study used satellite data during a 28-year period to come up with a calculation that Chinese dams had held back “a huge volume of water.”

“Monitoring the Quantity of Water Flowing Through the Upper Mekong Basin Under Natural (Unimpeded) Conditions”, released 10 April, was produced by researches “Eyes on Earth, Inc” on behalf of the Lower Mekong Initiative, the Sustainable Infrastructure Initiative, and “PACT”, who acknowledge that the report is “made possible by the generous support of the American people through the United States Department of State”.

A spokesman from China’s Ministry Foreign Affairs rejected the Eye’s on Earth’s study as “unreasonable,” saying Yunnan province also saw serious drought last year.

“Despite this, China has continued to do its utmost to guarantee reasonable discharge volumes” to countries downstream, the ministry said in a statement to Reuters news service.

The study claims that satellite measurements of “surface wetness” indicated that the Chinese dams in the Upper Mekong had “above-average” water levels when last year’s drought took place in Thailand and other countries downstream. “They didn’t directly cause the drought, but they compounded it,” Alin Basist, president of Eyes on Earth said of the dams. “The satellite observations provide measurements of surface wetness, which can be directly translated into river flow…You look at our mapping, and it’s bright blue with plenty of water in China and bright red from an extreme lack of water in Thailand and Cambodia. China can regulate this river’s flow through dams, and that appears to be exactly what it’s doing”.

The data examined include rainfall and soil moisture, snow and glacier melt. The researchers were able to calculate the natural flow of the Upper Mekong and measure river level at a gauge station at the intersection of the Myanmar, Lao PDR and Thai border. Flows were adjusted in years when dam reservoirs in China were being filled or released.

This Year’s Drought

In March 2020, the government of Vietnam declared a state of emergency in response to prolonged drought that had led to a shrinking of the river and a build-up of salinity, threatening yields of rice and fruit in the region. Waterflows from the Mekong River were estimated to be about 20 percent less than in 2016, which is the most recent crisis year. In 2016, which is regarded to have been the worst drought in the region in 100 years, agricultural losses were estimated excess of $380 Million USD, with about 17 million people affected. Vietnam is the world’s third largest exporter of rice, after India and Thailand.

2020’s situation has been attributed to lack of rain combined with growing water consumption upstream, as well as increased water storage in dams, mostly in China.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Vientiane, Laos on 20 February 2020 that, although China was also experiencing a drought, it would help its downstream neighbours cope by releasing more water from its dams. This may help Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia, but given Vietnam’s distance from the source, positive impacts from upstream releases have been regarded to have only limited (and late) impacts.

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