Jennifer Dodgson, Research Fellow
The Yellow River is to China what the Mekong is to Southeast Asia: both the origin and the prop of civilisation, providing water and agricultural land to nurture a growing society. While the Mekong is thought of with affection and gratitude as the “Mother of Waters”, however, the Yellow River has always been feared and distrusted. A quick glance at the ancient maps provides the reason: viewed as a historical time-lapse, the river flails wildly across the landscape like a dropped fire-hose, as the vast quantities of loess silt that it carries gradually raise the level of its bed and force it to change direction in order to find new outlets. According to a traditional saying, the Yellow River “bursts its banks twice every three years, and changes course once a century”.
The result is that large-scale water-management techniques have come to form a key pillar of Chinese government. Indeed, many historians see hydrology as being the key to the formation and endurance of China’s monolithic bureaucracy. Yu the Great, the semi-legendary founder of the Xia dynasty was promoted to leadership after developing new methods for diverting the water into irrigation and successfully organising local populations to deal with large-scale flooding of the Yellow River around 1920 BCE.
The high stakes involved in flood control ensured that it would persist as both a curse and a source of temptation for political leaders. While disaster could arrive at any moment, the successful execution of grandiose water-management projects also constituted proof par excellence of a sovereign’s capacity to rule. This trend did not cease with the end of imperial rule. If anything, it was accentuated by the arrival of modern technology. From Mao Zedong onwards, generations of Communist Party leaders have been fascinated by the prospect of constructing dams, diverting rivers and irrigating deserts, often in the face of overwhelming practical considerations. According to one well-known story, Mao Zedong was only persuaded that plans for an early iteration of the Three Gorges project were a disaster waiting to happen when Li Siguang, Minister for Geology at the time, threatened to kill himself rather than see the project go ahead. (The dam was finally completed in 2012, and remains the object of strident criticism.)
If the Chinese government confined its eternal optimism regarding the long-term prospects of large-scale water-management enterprises to rivers situated entirely within its own territory, this would – while interesting - not be an issue suitable for coverage by this blog. Currently, however, the state has plans to divert around 200 billion cubic meters of water annually from the headwaters of the Mekong, the Brahmaputra and the Salween Rivers towards northwestern provinces suffering from perennial drought, irking the Indian government in particular. In addition to this, a chain of seven dams has been constructed along the Chinese stretch of the Mekong (known as the Lancang), with an eighth having been canceled following complaints from downstream nations.
Inspired partially by Chinese experience, other Mekong basin countries have also begun construction, hoping to profit from a cheap source of hydropower on their doorstep. Laos, with the greatest geographical potential to benefit, has 23 hydropower projects in operation, 22 under construction, 43 planned and 20 more proposed. Vietnam has 10 in operation, one planned and another proposed. Thailand has five in operation and seven more planned. Cambodia has two under construction and 12 planned, while Myanmar has seven planned.
Furthermore, it has to be recognised that the construction undertaken so far has been relatively successful. This is no doubt due in part to the benign nature of the Mekong and her tributaries – being far more forgiving of human blunders than the Yellow River - but also due to better and more responsive administrative positions taken by the countries concerned. China, keen to promote regional cooperation and integration, has taken a softly-softly approach foreign critics that it rarely adopts with domestic malcontents. The government has shared much of its data with the Mekong River Commission, and modified or even canceled several Lancang cascade projects in response to social and environmental concerns.
However, the projects are not entirely without consequences: severe effects on the river’s seasonal volume have been observed in Thailand, as well as changes in fish migration patterns and downstream erosion. Moreover, the likely effects of the Mekong dam projects on the Tonle Sap wetlands are largely unknown; a similar project in the Florida Everglades successfully reduced flooding risks but also devastated the natural environment.
While these uncertainties are not a reason in themselves to abandon construction altogether, they nevertheless underline the fact that 4000 years’ experience notwithstanding, even Chinese experts still have great difficulty forecasting the precise effects that their interventions will have. While the Mekong states will be playing the game on a much lower difficulty setting, there have nevertheless been signs of serious strategic and operational problems with their projects.
To take one example, the planned Xayaburi Dam, 350km North of Vientiane was announced as a joint regional exercise in the context of the Mekong River Commission, with Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam establishing the plans via a joint decision-making project. However, the goodwill soon degenerated. In 2011 Laos decided to push ahead with construction despite reservations on the part of the other parties, Cambodia threatening an international court case, and work rapidly stalling after complaints by locals and environmental groups. According to NGOs, the dam will seriously affect or wipe out the livelihoods of around 200,000 people, reduce biodiversity downstream, and pose a threat to agriculture. Moreover, experts have raised concerns that the methods proposed for evacuating silt and allowing fish migration have never been tested in similar conditions.
However, the problems with hydropower in the Mekong basin are not limited to gradual economic and environmental change. As the dramatic footage of the collapsing Nam Ao Dam showed this month, the results of unexpectedly heavy rainfall and shoddy construction work can be sudden and catastrophic for those living downstream.
In China the Yellow River is described as a “hanging river”. This refers to the fact that one of the traditional water-management techniques involved building up the banks of the river as the silt levels increased, to a point at which the riverbed was well above ground-level in some areas. However, it also reflected a common perception of the river as a sword hanging over the heads of those who lived on its massive floodplains. The dash for hydropower and the construction of vast chains of dams along the Mekong and its tributaries runs the risk of creating a new hanging river in Southeast Asia. While this seems to be a phenomenon that local governments are willing to live with in return for cheap energy, it will come at a cost of perpetual nervousness.