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Endangered Rivers beyond our borders - The Three Parallel Rivers

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Sunset over the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Damien Dempsey, 2006Sunset over the Mekong River in Luang Prabang, Laos. Damien Dempsey, 2006“More than any other time in our history, it is fundamental that water is used more wisely and more efficiently, for both human and environmental purposes. To achieve this requires the ability to understand the myriad physical, environmental and socioeconomic interactions influencing modern water resource management.” Professor Gary Jones, CEO of eWater CRC. 2010.

Comparing 225 river basins across the world, the World Wildlife Fund identified some of the world’s most at-risk rivers. The ‘Three Parallel Rivers’: the Yangtze; the Salween; and the Mekong, were identified amongst the top 10; each facing different stages of development and levels of management, and their own mix of risks and issues.

Arising in sequence in the Tibetan Plateau, in a near pristine UNESCO World Heritage area, the Three Parallel Rivers flow from north to south, diverging around steep gorges, to support some 500 million people across South East Asia. Combined, they have enormous socio-economic and ecological significance. From the free-flowing Salween, to the large-scale development of the Yangtze, they offer interesting insight into the sliding scale of water resource development.

Religious Ceremony on Salween River by International RiversReligious Ceremony on Salween River by International RiversThe Salween

Flowing from the eastern highlands Tibetan Plateau, rising near the headwaters of the Mekong and the Yangtze in the “Three Parallel Rivers” UNESCO World Heritage Area, to the Andaman Sea, the Salween is the last free-flowing river in South-East Asia. Its upper catchments, largely pristine, and are home to 13 ethnic minority groups. No existing treaty currently exists between the nations and each has different and conflicting water resource development plans.

There are big plans for the Salween. China is moving ahead with up to 13 large hydropower projects as part of plans to meet 15% of energy needs from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020 and including 140GW from hydropower. First proposed back in 2003, the projects were suspended until recently in the face of widespread opposition from the public and environmental groups.

Myanmar is working on seven dam projects on the Upper Salween with several Chinese companies (Datang Corp of China, Hanergy Holding group, Gold Water Resources Co.) and as part of plans around the Greater Mekong Subregion Power Grid. Concerns surround the fact that these dams are located in conflict zones and are uncertain in terms of safety, economic feasibility, and environmental and social impacts. An estimated 50,000 people from ethnic minorities are also expected to be displaced.

The Mekong

Rising in China’s Qinghai Province and travelling between Myanmar and Laos, part-way along the Thailand border and through Cambodia and Vietnam before reaching the South China Sea, the Mekong River forms the largest basin in south-east Asia. It is also the world’s largest inland fishery and provides some 25% of the world’s freshwater fish for an annual worth of up to $US7 billion; its resources support over 60 million people.

The 1995 MRC Mekong agreement exists between Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam and , in the largely undeveloped Lower Mekong, there are 11 dams in different stages of planning and development.

Recently suspended, the Lao PDR Xayaburi hydropower dam project would have been the first mainstream dam downstream of China in the Lower Mekong Basin. On the 19th of April 2011 and with member countries failing to reach agreement on the proposed 1260 GW project, the MRC’s intergovernmental panel deferred the final decision on the Xayaburi dam to the ministerial level.

In January this year, the MRC countries also adopted basin-wide directions for water development.

“The adoption of this strategy is a milestone achievement. This is the first time that the four members of the Mekong River Commission have set out how we will share, utilise, manage and conserve water resources in the basin,” said Dr. Pham Khoi Nguyen, Viet Nam Minister of Natural Resources and Environment and current Chairman of the governing body of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) at the time. This Strategy is timely considering the rapid, large-scale water resource development activities, including intensified irrigated agriculture and hydropower generation, that are currently underway in the Mekong.

Mekong River by Bruno IderihaMekong River by Bruno IderihaIn further developments, a Memorandum of Understanding was signed between the Murray-Darling Basin Authority and Mekong River Commission on the 13th of May. This 5-year cooperative agreement re-affirmed a long-standing partnership around sharing of experiences and technical knowledge in river basin planning and management. This initiative was also supported by AusAID and the International Centre of Excellence in Water Resources Management (ICEWaRM).

“As our two river basins share noteworthy characteristics, this agreement signifies a continuing commitment to regional knowledge exchange and technical support in order to bring about improved river basin planning and management,” Said Officer in Charge of the MRC, Mr. Pich Dun. “This regional knowledge exchange between the two river basin authorities will shed valuable insight on issues that range from flood and drought mitigation to salinity management, public consultation processes to awareness campaigning.” (Media Release, Mekong River Commission, Vientiane, Lao PDR, 13 May 2011)

The Yangtze

Rising in the mountains of the Qinghai Province on the Tibetan plateau and flowing 6300km to the East China Sea at Shanghai, the catchments of the Yangtze cover a fifth of the land area and account for nearly half of China’s GDP. Its resources account for 40% of Chinas freshwater, more than 70% of its rice and fishery production and 50% of its grain production.

In the wake of China’s industrial development, the Yangtze is being choked by pollution with an estimated annual discharge of over 25 billion tons.
The Three Gorges Dam, completed in May 2006 at a final cost of over $US22 billion, is the world’s largest dam and has been fully operational since 2008 after 13 years of construction.

With a reservoir of more than 600km and a wall height of 183m, it has not been without its controversies. It reportedly replaced over 1.2 million people, flooded 13 cities, 140 towns and 1350 villages. The dam has caused a host of problems around land stability and landslide risks, flooding problems, and pollution issues; particularly because towns were not cleaned of waste before being submerged.

Of the Three Gorges Dam, environmental scientist Weng Lida, former head of the Yangtze River Water Resources Protection Commission and current secretary general of the Yangtze River Forum, commented to the Wall Street Journal in 2007 that: "We thought of all the possible issues, but the problems are all more serious than we expected."

With rainfall along the Yangtze in April and May at 40-50% below the historical average the Chinese government has reportedly (May 24, 2011, Bloomberg News) ordered dam operators to release 5 billion cubic metres of water from the Three Gorges Dam. This is an effort to counter the Hubei regions lowest rainfall in half a century and water shortages are reportedly being faced by around 4.4 million people. With these low water levels, hydropower companies are also facing severe power shortages.

Further developments are in the works on the middle and upper reaches of the Yangtze. Three of 12 planned hydropower mega-bases are now under construction and a further 100 dams could be built within two decades; forming part of China’s plans to triple its hydropower capacity by 2020.

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