Dam debate looms large over Mekong summit

BANGKOK: Leaders of Southeast Asian nations straddling the shrinking lower Mekong River are set to lean on China at talks Sunday as controversy builds over the cause of the waterway's lowest levels in decades. 

Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao will join the premiers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam in the Thai resort town of Hua Hin to discuss management of the vast river, on which more than 60 million people depend. 

A crippling drought in the region and the much-debated role of hydropower dams are due to dominate the two-day summit of the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) - the first in its 15-year history. 

China, a "dialogue partner" of the MRC, is expected to staunchly defend its dams, which activists downstream blame for water shortages, after the Mekong shrivelled to its lowest level in 50 years in Laos and Thailand's north. 

Nations in the lower Mekong basin may press China to share more information on the river, said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Centre, which researches environmental change. 

In addition, "they will request resources from China, ie, more money. I don't think there will be confrontation, at least from official appearances, but behind closed doors there will be strong debate," he told AFP. 

China - itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water - says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure. 

It says the dams, built to meet soaring demand for water and hydro-generated electricity, have been effective in releasing water during dry seasons and preventing flooding in rainy months. 

"China will never do things that harm the interests of (lower Mekong) countries," Yao Wen, a spokesman of the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok, said at a recent forum in the Thai capital. 

The crisis has grounded cargo and tour boats on the so-called "mighty Mekong" and alarmed communities along what is the world's largest inland fishery. 

The chief of the MRC's secretariat, Jeremy Bird, last week hailed Beijing's agreement to share water level data from two dams during this dry season, saying it "shows that China is willing to engage with lower basin countries". 

Yet questions remain over the impact of the eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river in China. Vice Minister of Water Resources Liu Ning said Wednesday more were needed to guarantee water and food security. 

China should continue to share information on the river, said Carl Middleton, Mekong programme coordinator at the campaign group International Rivers. 

"The drought is obviously important but the real question is: what relationship will China have with the MRC in the future?" 

Campaigners fear that the settling of political scores could block co-operation over the Mekong - especially the current animosity between Cambodian premier Hun Sen and his Thai counterpart Abhisit Vejjajiva. 

Hun Sen has not visited neighbouring Thailand since the two countries became embroiled in a row late last year over Cambodia's appointment of ousted Thai premier Thaksin Shinawatra as an economics adviser. 

"That's what worries me quite a lot, that the debate will be more political, and not even related to water," said Anond. 

Thailand has invoked a tough security law and will deploy more than 8,000 troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters do not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March. 

A year ago, regional leaders were forced to abandon a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) after demonstrators from the same movement stormed the Thai venue. 

- AFP/sc