On 24 August, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and the leaders of Laos, Cambodia, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam met via video conference for the 3rd Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Leaders' Meeting. Water resources cooperation was a key item on the agenda.
China promised to share the year-round hydrological information of the upper Mekong with downstream countries and jointly build an information-sharing platform for Lancang-Mekong water resources cooperation. This would lay a solid foundation for future water resources cooperation along the whole Mekong River, helping China and downstream countries to break the curse of water resources cooperation. It would also facilitate joint efforts in dealing with extreme weather events in the Mekong such as the frequent droughts in recent years.
The data exchange on hydrological information between river basin countries is not just a technical issue, but one relating to sovereignty and national security.
China contributes more than 24% of the Mekong's total water volume during dry season
The Mekong River is a transboundary river shared by China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The part located in China is traditionally called the Lancang River. In order to promote sustainable development, the six countries established the Lancang Mekong Cooperation (LMC) framework in 2015. Since then, water resources have been one of the priorities for LMC. Some people even believe that the LMC was "born from water". Today, the livelihoods of about 60 million people along the Mekong River is closely linked with water resources, and the value and significance of effective water cooperation among the six countries cannot be underestimated.
However, information asymmetry is considered to be the main reason hindering transboundary water cooperation.
Therefore, the sharing of hydrological information is key to overcoming this and to building trust and enhancing cooperation between countries located along the river. Unfortunately, the sharing of hydrological information is not an easy task. The data exchange on hydrological information between river basin countries is not just a technical issue, but one relating to sovereignty and national security. Not forgetting that upstream countries can use water resources independently, it is generally felt that they lack the motivation to participate in water resources cooperation in the context of the whole river basin.
Geographically, China is located on the upper reaches of the Mekong River. During the rainy season, China's contribution to the water volume of the lower Mekong River is about 16%, which does not seem to be very high. But in the dry season, river water from melting snow and ice from the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau is said to contribute more than 24% of the Mekong’s total water volume. This has a great impact on the lower Mekong River, which is affected by the tropical monsoon climate, frequent seasonal droughts and floods. If we consider the implications on water use in neighbouring countries, China's importance is further highlighted.
China's responsibilities in helping to combat effects of extreme weather in the Mekong
The more important the role, the greater the responsibility. China realised its responsibilities and obligations in water resources cooperation in the Mekong region early on, and its response to the expectations of downstream countries has gradually increased, due to two major factors. One is the increasingly extreme weather in the Mekong region due to global warming, and the other is level of mutual trust that China and the lower Mekong countries have built up in their interactions.
China's participation in Mekong water resources cooperation can be traced back to 1996, when China and Myanmar became dialogue partners of the Mekong River Commission (MRC). MRC is the intergovernmental organisation initiated by Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam to jointly manage the shared water resources and sustainable development of the Mekong River. The joint participation of these six countries shows that water resources cooperation in the whole Mekong River has begun to take shape. Since then, with communication and dialogue between China and the MRC continuing to increase, two sides have accumulated mutual trust to carry out higher-level water resources cooperation.
In 2002, China and the MRC signed an agreement to share hydrological data. China promised to provide the MRC with daily data on river flow and rainfall in the upper reaches during the rainy season. In 2008 and 2013, China and the MRC renewed the agreement. In 2013, China also agreed to extend the annual hydrological data shared with the MRC from four months to five months (from 1 June to 31 October), and increased the frequency of data transmission to twice a day. Up to now, China has conducted 23 consecutive cooperation dialogues with the MRC, and has provided the MRC with free hydrological data during the flood season of the Lancang River for 17 consecutive years since 2003, making positive contributions to flood prevention, drought relief, and disaster reduction in downstream areas.
The LMC is the first new type of sub-regional cooperation jointly established by six countries in this region. Since the cooperation framework regards water resources as a priority area of cooperation clearly, it also provides a new impetus and platform for water resources cooperation along the basin. In the past few years, the six countries have made some progress on establishing the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center, implementing early harvest projects, and applying for Lancang-Mekong Cooperation special funds and so on.
There are also individual countries and organisations outside the region trying to hype water issues in the Mekong region, criticising China's role in the Mekong region, and even attempting to destroy the mutual trust and unity between the upper and lower reaches of the Mekong.
In recent years, there have been some changes in the external environment of water resources cooperation in the Mekong region. Affected by global warming, extreme weather in the Mekong region is increasing. Specifically, seasonal droughts are becoming more and more destructive, seriously threatening the sustainable economic and social development of the basin countries as well as people’s livelihoods.
In 2016, the Mekong Delta in southern Vietnam suffered a severe drought that was unprecedented in a century. In 2019, the water level of the Mekong River dropped to its lowest level on record due to drought. These frequent droughts have severely affected the lives of hundreds of millions of residents in downstream countries.
In response to the drought, some Mekong countries have expressed their wish that China could release more water through dams upstream, and thus have more expectations for China's role in water resources cooperation. There are also individual countries and organisations outside the region trying to hype water issues in the Mekong region, criticising China's role in the Mekong region, and even attempting to destroy the mutual trust and unity between the upper and lower reaches of the Mekong.
Under such circumstances, China has overcome its own difficulties to initiate the emergency activation of the Lancang River's cascade dams to release more water to the lower Mekong River to deal with drought. Meanwhile, China is also trying to clarify misunderstandings, to maintain the hard-won unity and mutual trust with the Mekong countries. At the third leadership meeting of the LMC, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang promised that China will share with downstream countries the hydrological information of the upper Mekong River throughout the whole year. This means that besides the hydrological information provided during the rainy season, China will also provide the Mekong countries with hydrological data during the dry season.
Easy to criticise and blame China during severe drought
Timely and reliable hydrological information is essential for effective scientific decision-making on flood control and drought relief in the Mekong River. This kind of data will help China, the MRC and the natural resources ministries of various downstream countries to form closer and more efficient water resources cooperation through unified scheduling, mutual assistance and understanding, which will improve the forecast and management of river flow during floods and droughts. The joint construction of the Lancang-Mekong water resources cooperation information-sharing platform will not only help researchers conduct more scientific and standardised joint research on the water resources of the Mekong River, but will also spark off new ways to improve the efficiency of water resources cooperation.
There are signs that individual countries and organisations are trying to make the Mekong region into the so-called "second South China Sea", by playing up the "security" and "politicisation" of water resources.
A platform for information sharing and cooperation could also minimise misunderstandings in cooperation in the river basin due to information asymmetry, and break the curse of cooperation between the upper and lower reaches of the Mekong countries. That is, every time the Mekong region encounters a severe drought, it is always easy to criticise and blame China. The consequence is that the mutual trust and relationship between upstream and downstream countries will be challenged. What makes China more concerned is that this curse is becoming a tool for countries and organisations outside this region to intervene in Mekong affairs and undermine the unity and mutual trust between Mekong countries. There are signs that individual countries and organisations are trying to make the Mekong region into the so-called "second South China Sea", by playing up the "security" and "politicisation" of water resources.
Therefore, from China’s point of view, providing annual hydrological information on the upper Mekong River and building an information sharing platform with downstream countries is obviously a signal of its goodwill and sincerity, indicating China hopes to maintain friendly relations with Mekong countries. This relationship is also an important part of the China-ASEAN strategic partnership.
As early as 1996, China joined the ASEAN-Mekong Basin Development Cooperation (AMBDC) initiated by ASEAN. The LMC is also a sub-regional cooperation framework proposed at the 17th China-ASEAN Leaders’ Meeting, emphasising the comprehensive docking with the priority areas of ASEAN community building and China-ASEAN cooperation. Against the backdrop of ongoing turbulence in relations between major powers and the evolution of the international order presenting more complexity and uncertainty, it is extremely important to consolidate and maintain the stability of the strategic relationship between China and the ASEAN countries, including the Mekong countries.
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