Southeast Asian river countries meet China over dam fears

HUA HIN, Thailand, April 4, 2010 (AFP) - Southeast Asian nations on the shrinking lower Mekong River began talks with China Sunday amid fears that its dams are further depleting the waterway's lowest levels in decades.

A Chinese delegation was due to hold talks in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin ahead of a Monday meeting to be attended by Beijing's Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao and the premiers of Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Leaders will discuss management of the vast river, on which more than 60 million people depend, amid a crippling drought in the region and controversy surrounding the role of hydropower dams, said summit spokesman Damian Kean.

Men sit fishing on a bank of the drought-hit Mekong River at Hom village in the suburds of Vientiane on March 27, 2010. AFP photo

"This is to reaffirm the countries' political commitment to transboundary cooperation on managing the water resources of the Mekong basin," said Kean.

"New challenges such as climate change and new hydropower dams" are high on the agenda, added Kean, of the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) that was organising the first summit in its 15-year history.

Leaders began arriving in Hua Hin on Sunday morning and were due to gather for a gala dinner ahead of Monday's meeting, where they will sign a joint declaration of their aims, said organisers.

Myanmar will also participate as a dialogue partner at the top-level talks.

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

China is expected to staunchly defend its own dams, which activists downstream blame for water shortages, after the Mekong shrivelled to its lowest level in 50 years in Laos and Thailand's north.

The crisis has grounded cargo and tour boats on the so-called "mighty Mekong" and alarmed communities along what is the world's largest inland fishery.

Nations in the lower Mekong basin are likely to press China for information on the river as well as financial help, said Anond Snidvongs, director of the Southeast Asia START Regional Centre, which researches environmental change.

China -- itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water -- says the reason for water shortages is unusually low rainfall rather than man-made infrastructure.

It says the dams, built to meet soaring demand for water and hydro-electricity, have been effective in releasing water during dry seasons and preventing flooding in rainy months.

The Chinese Embassy in Bangkok last week said China would "never do things that harm the interests of (lower Mekong) countries" and has agreed to share water level data from two dams during this dry season.

Yet questions remain over the impact of the eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river in China.

Vice Minister of Water Resources Liu Ning said Wednesday more were needed to guarantee water and food security, while 12 dams in lower Mekong countries have also been proposed.

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

A year ago, regional leaders were forced to abandon a summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) due to protests.

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