If it became clear that China has indeed been impounding water during the dry season, then a wave of criticism would likely follow. But there might also be gratitude: while people living downstream of a reservoir normally hope it will prevent flooding and relieve droughts, in certain circumstances they actually desire the opposite.
Evaluating the impact of a reservoir is complicated. Not only are there various ways of operating a dam, but one particular scheme can also have different consequences for different stretches of the river. China and downstream nations may have competing interests, but there are also conflicts of interest between the downstream nations themselves.
For example, the 2008 floods on the Vientiane plains in Laos and the drought on the northern Mekong have both resulted in complaints that China’s reservoirs are making the changes in river level more extreme – flood peaks are higher and dry periods drier.
But in Cambodia I heard a different story. There, the Tonlé Sap Lake relies on seasonal changes in the level of the Mekong. In flood season, water flows back up a tributary to fill the lake which, in turn, rises to cover a much greater area. The floods carry nutrient-rich sediment, providing nourishment for the unique strain of high-stalked rice that grows there, and the higher waters allow fish populations to migrate upstream and breed (this is one of the world’s largest freshwater fisheries). In the dry season, the water flows back out into the Mekong, the lake shrinks and the locals get out of their boats to collect the fish stranded in traps and harvest the now mature rice And so the lake is known as the land of rice and fish.
This semi-aquatic traditional way of life and the unique seasonal ecosystem both rely on the rise and fall of the Mekong. Unlike those living on the banks of the river in Laos, the people here worry that the flood waters won’t come or that the river will remain in full flow during the dry season. Here, they complain that the changes in the level of the Mekong have been too small – the lake doesn’t rise enough, meaning the water doesn’t reach all of the rice, while in the dry season water levels are too high and much of the rice harvest is lost.
Add in the impact on fish migration, and the land of rice and fish isn’t as abundant as it used to be. Locals are earning less and both the way of life and the ecosystem are under threat. Some point the finger at China’s reservoirs, blaming the impoundment of flood waters and the release of water during the dry season.
I explained to the people I met that I had no idea what China’s reservoirs were actually doing and therefore didn’t know if they could be blamed or not. But I could be sure that these complaints contradicted the ones I had heard in Laos: either of the charges could be true, but not both at once.
If China is responsible for the problems in Thailand and Laos, then we need to look at changes in rainfall patterns and the flow of tributaries such as the Kong River and Tonlé Sap itself to explain the woes at the lake: they cannot have anything to do with China. It could also be possible that both sets of problems are driven by local changes and that China’s reservoirs are innocent on both counts. But a firm conclusion requires an examination of the region’s hydrology and data on the operation of China’s reservoirs.
This brings us to a deeper issue. If it were true that China’s reservoirs were making changes in water level more or less extreme, in either case there would be advantages and disadvantages. And, by rights, China should – in amongst the complaints – be hearing words of gratitude. If Laos and Thailand are complaining about more extreme changes, Cambodia should be thanking China. And vice versa. But there are only complaints. Is this simply anti-China bias at work?
In fact, I believe the problem stems from claims in certain Chinese quarters that the country has “no impact” downstream. This means that anyone benefitting from upstream schemes will see no need to thank China, while those suffering simply reject its claims, since it has provided no proof. Is there evidence for their complaints? No – because China has not published data on what is actually happening at the reservoirs, making it impossible to objectively evaluate that “impact”. And if “evaporation” is then brought up, they may simply conclude they are being lied to.
For example, everyone knows that natural drought has played a role in the drying up of the Mekong. But how did China’s reservoirs respond? The authorities refuse to say. Maybe the country deserves thanks for releasing water (even if the drought was so severe that this action didn’t help). And if it was impounding water, well then it can hardly refute the complaints. But refusing to say one way or the other means that China is either losing out on the thanks it deserves from Cambodia, or failing to provide the evidence necessary to counter complaints from Thailand and Laos.
The evasiveness of the authorities over reservoir operation means that, if China is doing something good, nobody knows about it. But it cannot hide any harm that it does and will be suspected of causing harm it has nothing to do with. What sort of strategy is that?
Furthermore, some parties appear to think that other nations work like China – that the entire country will stick to the official line and so you only need to worry about the official stance. I once heard an employee of a Chinese-funded firm complain: “Their government isn’t saying anything, what are the NGOs and media doing going on about it?” But these countries work differently – public opinion and official statements play complementary roles, with the public saying what the government is not able to say in order to apply pressure and leave the authorities room to manoeuvre.
But in China, we argue that diplomacy is too important to be left open to public debate and keep a lid on comment. If this means China cannot use public opinion to strengthen its voice internationally, so be it. But if the country applies this view overseas, believing that all it needs to do is win over government officials while public opinion can be ignored or fobbed off, the results will be poor. Western diplomacy often takes a tough line with foreign governments but is softer with public opinion. In China, we used to joke that our officials were scared of foreigners, while the foreigners were scared of us. Maybe we should remember this when we are the foreigners.
This article was first published in the Economic Observer. It is reproduced here with permission.
Qin Hui is professor of history at Tsinghua University
Homepage image from Paul Mannix