China, Mekong Countries One Step Closer to Real-Time Water Data Sharing
A potential agreement between China and five Southeast Asian countries to share real-time data about the flows of the Mekong River is a positive development, which will help address global climate change and the risk of droughts and floods, a senior official from the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission told Sixth Tone.
Making sure there is “effective near real-time sharing of storage levels and hydropower operations data” is one of the short-term recommendations of a Phase I report jointly published by the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center and the Mekong River Commission on Oct. 5.
The Mekong River Commission is made up of representatives from four of the five countries the Mekong flows through after leaving China: Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Meanwhile, the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center, based in Beijing, was established on the back of the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation initiated by China in 2014.
Officials from the six countries, including Myanmar, approved the report recommendations at a “historic” meeting in Beijing last month, the Commission said.
There has yet to be confirmation about the specifics of the data-sharing mechanism. Vice Minister Tian Xuebin from China’s Ministry of Water Resources said at the meeting that the construction of a data-sharing platform should be “accelerated.”
“We should adhere to win-win cooperation ... to promote development and prosperity in the region. The six countries should have mutual trust, understanding and support for each other, and respect the rights of all parties to rationally develop and utilize water resources based on national conditions,” said Tian.
Anoulak Kittikhoun, CEO of the Mekong River Commission Secretariat, told Sixth Tone that China and the Mekong countries agreed at the Beijing meeting to work more closely together in sharing operational data, including the operation of reservoirs and other infrastructure. “Such information has not been shared yet ... In the past, the operation of dams was understood as very sovereign and independent.”
Currently, China mainly shares hydrological data such as rainfall with the Mekong countries. In a 2002 agreement, China began providing seasonal flood data from two hydrological stations, which was extended to year-round data in 2020.
Sharing data on reservoir operations can allow downstream countries to better manage climate risks and abnormal situations, Kittikhoun explained. For example, when heavy rainfall occurs upstream, if the reservoirs cannot hold all the water and need to be released, data sharing can allow downstream countries to better prepare.
The Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center could not be reached for comment.
The over 4,000-kilometer-long river, known in China as the Lancang River, originates in northwestern China’s Qinghai province, before flowing into five Southeast Asian countries where it is referred to as the Mekong River. The river supports the livelihoods of around 70 million people.
In the past decade, increased development and infrastructure building along the river have led to changes in the basin’s flow regime and ecology, the joint report said.
Greater data sharing will present greater advantages to the lower Mekong countries, but the six countries in the basin cannot be “decoupled from each other,” according to Wang Zhijian, an adjunct professor at the Hopkins–Nanjing Center who studies international rivers.
“By providing ... data, China can give itself greater discourse power,” the professor told Sixth Tone. Greater data sharing would also allow China to better understand the impact of its water infrastructure such as reservoirs and dams, he added.
In 2020, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in response to questions about upstream dams causing droughts downstream that all six countries supported the construction of a data-sharing platform for water resource cooperation and that transparency has continued to improve.
“It is indeed great progress for China to discuss the sharing of real-time data in public, but it may take a long time to sign a substantial agreement,” the professor said.
As data is an important national resource, any sharing mechanism would have to be “mutually beneficial and reciprocal,” technically feasible, as well as safe from a cybersecurity standpoint, he explained.
China and Myanmar became dialogue partners with the Mekong River Commission in 1996. In 2016, the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation was launched to “build a community of common destinies for the Mekong countries.”
“The initiative proposed by China provides a formal stage for dialogue,” the professor said.
The joint study of the Mekong River is set to finish next year, with a follow-up report to be published focused on medium-term solutions such as drought and flood management strategies.
Editor: Vincent Chow.
(Header image: An aerial view of Jinghong hydropower station in Yunnan province, 2013. VCG)