• The Financial District


The Mekong River has become a new front in US-China rivalry, environmentalists and officials say, with Beijing overtaking Washington in both spending and influence over downstream countries at the mercy of its control of the river’s waters, Kay Johnson and Panu Wongcha-um reported for Reuters on July 24, 2020.

It’s a confrontation in which the Trump administration - which has largely maintained funding for an Obama-era environmental and development programmes in the Lower Mekong - is losing ground. The two powers’ struggle recently moved into the realm of science - with the US and Chinese governments each touting different reports about whether China’s 11 dams on the river were harming nations downstream.

A US ambassador in the region described China as “hoarding” water in its 11 dams on its upper portion of the 4,350-km (2,700-mile) river, harming the livelihoods of millions of people in downstream countries. One reason is that the commission and member governments want more data about operations of China’s dams, which hold back a combined capacity 47 billion cubic meters of water.

China also has been stepping up activities of its Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC), a relatively new intergovernmental body that a US ambassador decried as trying to “sideline” the 25-year-old Mekong River Commission (MRC). The US-China rivalry broke into a war of words after a Washington-funded study in April concluded that China’s dams held back waters during last year’s drought.

The study by Eyes on Earth, a US-based research and consulting company specializing in water, built a prediction model based on satellite imaging and MRC data that it said showed “missing” waters downstream, starting in around 2010. Then, last week, China’s Global Times published an article about a Chinese study it characterized as disproving the Eyes on Earth report. “River dams in China helped alleviate drought along Lancang-Mekong, research finds,” read the headline in the newspaper published by the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s ruling Communist Party. However, the study by Tsinghua University and the China Institute of Water Resources in fact said China’s dams could, in future, help alleviate drought, not that they actually did so in 2019, according to a copy obtained by Reuters. “We are not meaning to compare with any other report. We aim to provide some basic facts to facilitate mutual understanding, trust and therefore cooperation in the basin,” lead researcher Tian Fuqiang told Reuters in an email.

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