Venturing into uncharted waters

In an effort to try something new and brush up on my newswriting skills, I have been working for the last couple of months with a specialist publisher covering stories from around the world about the precious resource of water.

Working with Ooska News (derived from the Gaelic word for water – uisge) has opened my eyes to the fundamental importance of water on a local and global level. From human rights to climate change, from conflict to equality, from subsistence livelihoods to multi-national corporations and from the natural environment to major infrastructure – writing these short news items has exposed me to a range of sources that were largely new to me, and has provided me with insights into positive progress and shocking failures in how we handle this finite resource around the world.

Here are two of those relating to dams on the Mekong River. I am posting my original copy here as well as the link to the final item (once it’s been through my editor’s expert hands). However, to view the published article, you may need to register as a user. More to come …

“Drastic Cut”: What Is China Doing With Mekong Dams?

Published on Ooska News 04/03/21

Photo credit: Mekong River Commission

Mekong River water levels between Jinghong hydropower station in China’s Yunnan province and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam have fallen to worrying levels, says the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

The MRC has observed a 25 percent drop in average rainfall since last November, while outflow from Jinghong has been fluctuating wildly, falling to half its normal levels on several days in January.

The fluctuations have made it “challenging for authorities and communities to prepare for and respond to possible impacts”, says to Dr Winai Wangpimool, Director of the MRC Secretariat’s Technical Support Division.

In early January, China’s Ministry of Water Resources notified the four Lower Mekong countries that the outflow from Jinghong would be restricted to 1,000 m³/s from 5 to 24 January due to the maintenance of power grid transmission lines. The Ministry, however, did not specify the river water level before the outflow restriction nor the volume to be restored on 25 January.

“Continuing this flow pattern could have an impact on river transport, fish migration, agriculture and river weed collection,” Dr Winai said. “To help the Lower Mekong countries manage risks more effectively, we call on China and the Lower Mekong countries themselves to share their water release plans with us.”

Last year, China agreed to share year-round water level and rainfall data with the MRC and pledged to notify the MRC and its Member Countries of any abnormal rise or fall in water levels or discharge, and provide relevant information on factors that might lead to sudden flooding.

The significantly lower levels have also changed the river’s colour from its usual brown to blue-green. The lower flow means less sediment is being washed downstream and the resulting clarity of the water is leading to the formation of algae on the riverbed.

Experts at the MRC are concerned that the increased clarity could lead to changes in the river’s productivity, with less food available for aquatic insects, invertebrates and small fish.

The 12th longest in the world, the Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Heavily dammed in China, changes to its flow have had a noticeable impact on the river’s ecology and on the downstream communities dependent upon it for food, fresh water and livelihoods.

Plans to build another dam in Laos have already brought widespread criticism from environmental groups and the Thai authorities.

Thailand Unhappy About China-Funded Laos Dam

Published on Ooska News 12/01/21

Photo credit: International Rivers

The Thai government has intervened in plans announced by the Laos government to build another hydroelectric dam on the Mekong River, citing environmental concerns.

It has called for a more comprehensive scientific study into the impact of the proposed Sanakham dam on the river’s already fragile ecosystems and has threatened to veto the project using its rights as a member of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) if it concludes that the construction will harm the environment.

Financed by China at an anticipated cost of 6.4 billion baht ($ 214 million) the dam is intended to provide a source of income to impoverished Laos through exporting its electricity to nearby Thailand. However, the Thai government has indicated that it may not buy the power generated by the 684-megawatt hydroelectric facility if its concerns are not addressed.

Under the terms of the Mekong Agreement, the project must undergo a Procedure for Notification, Prior Consultation and Agreement (PNPCA) process. The Thai government has declined to organise the necessary public hearings until further studies are carried out.

Speaking to the press in December, Somkiat Prajamwong, secretary general of Thailand’s Office of National Water Resources said that the limited information supplied by the Lao government hints at increased levels of sediment in the freshwater ecological system, adding: “But this data is not up to date at all. Thai authorities need more recent information.”

The proposed site between Xayaburi and Vientiane is only two kilometres upstream of the Thai-Lao border. The deputy governor of Loei Province, which is immediately downstream of the site, has voiced local concerns that the impact of the dam could be even more significant than that already felt by the Xayaburi dam, despite it being considerably further upstream.

Environmentalist groups including NGO coalition Save the Mekong have already voiced their opposition to the project, calling the Sanakham dam proposals “expensive, unnecessary and risky”.

The 12th longest in the world, the Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Already heavily dammed in China, changes to its flow have had a noticeable impact on the river’s ecology and on the downstream communities dependent upon it for food, fresh water and livelihoods.

The controversy over the Sanakham dam comes as the US-funded Mekong Dam Monitor launches. The real-time platform collects data from cloud-piercing satellite to provide a view of how major dams and climate conditions impact hydrological conditions along the Mekong basin.

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