Millions of people living in and around Southeast Asia’s largest river, the Mekong, need a greater voice in determining its future, say activists.
“There needs to be more recognition of the voice of the people who depend on the river and what their vision of the river is,” Carl Middleton, the Mekong programme coordinator for the US-based NGO International Rivers, told IRIN.
“Decision-makers should listen better to the people that are affected by [infrastructure] projects.”
His comments coincide with the conclusion of the first ever Mekong River Summit on 5 April in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin, which brought together leaders from China, Laos, Cambodia, Viet Nam, Thailand and Myanmar to discuss its management.
The summit, organized by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) to mark its 15th anniversary, comes at a critical time: the river’s water-level is at its lowest point in 50 years in Laos and northern Thailand.
Boat traffic has been halted along many parts of the 4,350km river, and fisheries and irrigation systems have been adversely affected.
Dams in China
While unusually low rainfall is widely believed to be responsible for the current low level of water in the Mekong, many environmentalists and NGOs claim China has exacerbated the situation by damming the river upstream.
China has four dams on the river and four more planned, but Beijing denies the dams are contributing to the current low level of the Mekong, and used the MRC meetings to reiterate its stance that natural causes are to blame.
"The current extreme dry weather in the lower Mekong river basin is the root cause for the reduced run-off water and declining water level in the main stem Mekong," Chen Mingzhong, deputy director-general of China’s Department of International Cooperation, Science and Technology, told a conference on 2 April that preceded the international summit.
On 4 April, China’s delegation promised increased cooperation among Mekong river countries on water management issues, particularly concerning its dams. This comes after China agreed for the first time ever late last month to share water-level data at two dams.
“This is a positive step,” Middleton told IRIN. A lack of rainfall is obviously a very important factor in the low level of the Mekong, he said, but questions remain as to whether China’s dams have also exacerbated the situation, or whether the dams could be used to alleviate the problem.
The summit focused on regional cooperation in solving drought and flooding problems in the Mekong region. The final joint declaration covered how the river can be used to reduce poverty, boost sustainable energy development, help people adapt to climate change, improve infrastructure and increase the involvement of civil society stakeholders in planning and decision-making.
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