China dismisses Mekong dam criticism at regional meeting

HUA HIN, Thailand, April 5, 2010 (AFP) - China rejected criticism Monday of its dams on the shrinking Mekong River, telling Southeast Asian leaders that it was not to blame for a regional drought affecting millions of people.

At a landmark meeting with the heads of four Southeast Asian nations, Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao denied activists' criticism that the hydropower dams had exacerbated decades-low water levels downstream.

"Statistics show that the recent drought that hit the whole river basin is attributable to the extreme dry weather, and the water level decline of the Mekong River has nothing to do with the hydropower development," he said.

The leaders of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- the member-states of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- convened in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin to discuss management of the river, on which more than 60 million people rely.

This handout picture released by Thailand's Govenment House shows Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung (R) sitting next to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva (L) during the Mekong River Commission Summit Retreat in Hua Hin on April 5, 2010. AFP photo

China -- itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water -- attended the talks as a dialogue partner of the MRC, as did military-ruled Myanmar.

"China itself is also a victim of the present severe drought," Song told the summit, where the four MRC states signed a treaty pledging to prioritise tackling climate change and responding to drought.

The so-called "Mighty Mekong" has dropped to its lowest level in 50 years in northern Thailand and Laos, alarming communities who depend on the critical waterway for food, transport, drinking water and irrigation.

Children swim along the Mekong river in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on April 5, 2010. AFP photo

More than 60 million people rely in some way on the river, which is the world's largest inland fishery, producing an annual estimated catch of 3.9 million tonnes, according to the MRC.

The commission has warned that the health of the Mekong Basin and the river's eco-systems could be threatened by proposed dams and expanding populations.

The abnormally low levels have raised fears over already endangered species such as the Mekong giant catfish.

At the first summit in the commission's 15-year history, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva warned the Mekong "will not survive" without good management.

"The Mekong River is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustainable use of water and the effects of climate change," he said, adding the meeting was "an important wake-up call."

The Chinese delegation arrived Sunday and met for bilateral talks with MRC countries seeking more information about the economic power's dams, seen by activists as being behind the current water shortage.

In a bid to end speculation about its river projects, China -- which has eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river -- recently agreed to share data from two stations during this dry season.

During the talks, Beijing offered to release further information from its mainstream dams -- which was hailed as a "significant step forward" by the MRC Secretariat's chief, Jeremy Bird.

Abhisit for his part said he hoped China's cooperation would become "more regular" in the future.

Priorities laid out in the summit's declaration included identifying the opportunities and challenges of hydropower and other infrastructure development in the Mekong Basin, as well as improvements in information sharing.

Environmentalist Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Centre, which researches environmental change, called for the data also to be made available to the general public and scientific communities.

Thailand invoked a tough security law and deployed thousands of troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters did not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March.

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