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Mekong River at 'Worrying' Low Level Amid Calls for More Chinese Dam Data

Cambodian fishermen on a motorized boat go fishing in the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 2, 2021.

Water levels in the Mekong River have fallen to a “worrying level” in part due to outflow restrictions from Chinese hydropower dams upstream, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) said Friday, calling on Beijing to share all its water data.

The vital waterway has turned blue along the Thai-Laos border, from its usual murky brown color -- signaling shallow water and low levels of nutrition-rich sediment -- partially from outflow restrictions from the Jinghong dam in China’s Yunnan province, the inter-governmental MRC said.

Friday’s statement said low rainfall and dams on the Lower Mekong and tributaries also contributed to the drop in levels.

“There have been sudden rises and falls in water levels immediately downstream of Jinghong and further down to Vientiane,” said Winai Wongpimool, director of the MRC Secretariat’s Technical Support Division.

Such fluctuations affect fish migration, agriculture and transportation that nearly 70 million people rely on for their livelihoods and food security.

“To help the Lower Mekong countries manage risks more effectively, we call on China and the Lower Mekong countries themselves to share their water release plans with us,” Winai said.

The MRC said normal conditions may be restored if large volumes of water are released from Chinese dams’ reservoirs.

China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs disputed the MRC’s findings, adding that there are many causes of downstream drought.

China last year pledged to share data from it dams with MRC member countries Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

In January, Beijing notified neighbors that its dams were filling reservoirs until Jan. 25.

Outflow levels at Jinghong Dam were 785 cubic meters per second in early-January before rising to 1,400 cubic meters per second in mid-January, the MRC said.

However, levels dropped again in February and were 800 cubic meters per second as of Thursday, the MRC said. The statement did not mention any recent notification from Beijing.

China said the dam’s outflow has been consistently more than 1,000 cubic meters per second since the end of January, a level it says is nearly twice the natural flow of the river. It called on the MRC “to avoid causing public misunderstanding.”