Rhein on Energy and Climate

The member countries of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) and China met at Easter to discuss the dramatic consequences of the drought wave in South East Asia for the Mekong River. The mighty 4.400 km long Mekong River, which originates in the Tibetan heights and flows through the mountainous Yuhan Province, has reached its lowest level for 50 years, making irrigation and navigation in large parts practically impossible.

The southern riparian countries make four upstream hydro-power plants that China has completed in 2008 responsible for the low water level. China refutes these allegations and puts the blame on the exceptionally low precipitations in the region linked to climate change.

The two Chinese provinces Yuhan and Guizhou are as much affected by the drought as its southern neighbours Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam. In some areas, the population lacks drinking water which has to be supplied by trucks! It is the worst drought since weather data are being registered in the region, and it is not expected to go away before the beginning of the new raining season in May.

China is undoubtedly right: its recently built hydro-electric dams on the Mekong/Lancang river can hardly be the only villains in the play even if China had to temporarily cut off the water flow during the last two years to fill the dams. But less than 20 percent of the down-stream Mekong water originates in China; and once on stream dams serving primarily for generating hydro-power and not for irrigation will also help to regularise the water flow. The Chinese version of the story therefore has certain plausibility.

This being said, we should draw three conclusions from these dramatic events:

It is urgent to introduce multi-national management to the huge trans-national river basins in East and South Asia. Upstream countries like China and India can no longer afford to build dams without consulting and taking into account the interests of their downstream neighbours. Failing to do so will lead to tensions and even conflicts.

China seems to slowly understand this message. The Chinese government has, indeed, expedited its deputy foreign minister to the meeting of the Mekong Commission to calm the excitement and assure its southern neighbours that it will take their water interests into account.

But India also continues to be deeply worried about China envisaging to divert the Brahmaputra, which constitutes the life-blood for India. So is Pakistan about India taking too much water from the Indus.

The drought in South West Asia shows the utter helplessness of humanity against this type of natural catastrophes. When 60 million farmers lose much of their harvest that is serious for them and the region concerned, but not yet a global catastrophe. But assume one day such droughts will affect 600 million people, 10 percent of humanity! This will have an impact on global food supply and prices of staple crops like rice or maize with unimaginable consequences.

The drought also demonstrates the futility of “adaptation measures” against climate change. Beyond certain thresholds these will simply come too late. Humanity should therefore redouble its efforts to mitigate climate change rather than waste large amounts of money trying to adapt to it.

In that sense, the 2010 drought in South West Asia should be wake-up call for the Chinese government to massively step up its fight against climate change. Investing more in alternative energies and energy efficiency and getting away from coal should be the top priority for the Chinese government.

Brussels 05. 04.10 Eberhard Rhein

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