The Mekong River originates in China and winds its way south, flowing through or past five other countries — Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam — before it empties into the South China Sea. The Mekong is the beating heart of the region, and while a cliche, the depiction is painfully accurate. It supports and sustains 60 million people, providing them food and jobs. Those nations and communities do not just depend on the river; their existence is inextricably intertwined with it.

In recent years, the Mekong has pulsed with greater intensity and experts fear that it is being pushed to extremes, jeopardizing its ecosystem and all the lives that depend on it for survival. Mechanisms have been created to help manage the river, but their failures have become increasingly clear — one of the biggest problems may be the multiplicity of initiatives. Now more than ever, close coordination among Mekong riverine states, those mechanisms, and the other governments promoting regional development is essential. No state plays a bigger role in this process than China. The future of the Mekong River may well be the most important and revealing test of Chinese intentions in Asia.

Drought, in combination with river development and subsidiary water utilization plans, last year brought the Lower Mekong River — the part of the waterway downstream from China — to its lowest levels in more than 50 years. A study released earlier this month shows that the primary culprit for the record drought was China. Dams built in its part of the 4,350-km river deliberately restrained flow, even though China had higher than average water levels upstream.

The analysis by Eyes on Earth Inc, a research and consulting company that specializes in water and which was funded by the U.S. State Department, used satellite data to compare water levels in China’s portion of the Mekong River Basin with that from river-level readings at the closest hydrological station to China in Thailand from 1992 to late 2019. The data allowed them to predict “natural” water levels for the river. For the first 20 years, from 1992-2012, the two sets of measurements tracked closely, but from 2012 the readings diverge, with downstream water levels as much as three meters lower than anticipated.

Last year, the shortfall was especially severe, as water levels dropped to historically low levels. Irrigation pumps in Thailand failed and the military had to be mobilized to provide water to afflicted communities. Rice farmers in Vietnam were unable to plant crops, sparking fears of a food shortage in the world’s third largest rice producer. The catch in Cambodia’s Tonle Sap, Southeast Asia’s largest inland lake, home to more than 1,000 species of fish and source of more than 500,000 tons of catch a year, was down by as much as 90 percent and many of the fish caught were so small that they could only be used to feed other fish. Scientists blame low water levels, which prevented parts of the lake from being filled and those that did were shallow and the water was oxygen poor.

Eyes on Earth blames China for the shortages. In China, the Mekong flows through mountainous territory which only allows for its use as a source of power (rather than farming). As a result, China embraced an aggressive construction program that produced 11 dams on the upper Mekong, with a combined capacity of 47 billion cubic meters. The new study noted that the divergence in water levels in the two halves of the river began when the largest of China’s hydropower dams on the Mekong came online. One of the authors of the study concluded that “a huge volume of water … was being held back in China,” and the refusal to let water out “has a severe impact on the drought experienced downstream.”

Chinese officials angrily denied the claim, blaming low rainfall for the conditions. A Foreign Ministry statement dismissed as “unreasonable” charges that Chinese dams caused downstream droughts, and countered that “China has continued to do its utmost to guarantee reasonable discharge volumes” to other countries. China does not release detailed data on water releases from its dams and the Eyes on Earth authors point out that their satellite data shows ample supplies of water in upper reaches of the river as countries in the south go dry.

No single treaty includes all Mekong riparian states. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) was established in 1995, but it includes Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, not China, although Beijing became a dialogue partner the following year and has cooperated with the organization for some time. Rather than join, Beijing proposed in 2014 and then helped set up the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LCM) Initiative, which includes all six countries. The prevailing view of the LCM is that it is intended to exploit MRC weaknesses and entrench China’s regional standing as Beijing disperses aid and gains influence over development projects along the waterway.Japan has been deeply engaged in Mekong activities, working as a development partner of the MRC. Since 2001, this country has provided over $18 million to various projects that tackle flood and drought management, irrigation, climate change and environmental management. In 2004, Japan helped fund the Regional Flood Management and Mitigation Centre, which provides daily flood forecasting and river monitoring. In 2009, the first Japan-Mekong summit was held, and a meeting has convened annually ever since. In 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and leaders of the five Southeast Asian Mekong riparian countries agreed to the “Tokyo Strategy 2018,” which has promoted 150 projects in three main areas: connectivity, people-centered societies, environment and disaster management.Last September, Japan and its Mekong partners established the “Mekong Industrial Development Vision 2.0 (MIDV2.0)” and two months later, at the 11th Mekong-Japan Summit, they agreed to the “Mekong-Japan Initiative for SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals] towards 2030,” which will help those countries achieve those UN benchmarks.

At the November 2019 summit, the Southeast Asian leaders also voiced support for the principles — not the policy — animating the Free and Open Indo-Pacific, Japan’s vision for the region that is based on equality, shared benefit and respect for the rule of law. In the Mekong River, those principles assume concrete form in the infrastructure being built along the waterway. Quality infrastructure investment will not only ensure durable, affordable and sustainable projects, but it will guarantee that the benefits are shared by all the people who depend on the river for their survival.

In this effort, China plays the most important role. Much of the water that downstream communities depend on originates in that country. China can easily put its needs above those of other nations; and even as Beijing argues that it is being generous, it implies that selfishness is its right. At regional forums, Chinese officials insist that their country too is suffering from drought and its water discharges are sacrifices to help downstream countries. In February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told regional counterparts that China was hard hit by drought but it “has overcome various difficulties to increase the water discharge.” Left unspoken is the prospect of not ovecoming those difficulties.

But Chinese dams are filling local reservoirs. The authors of the Eye on Earth study argue that “the Chinese are building safe deposit boxes on the upper Mekong because they know the bank account is going to be depleted eventually and they want to keep it in reserve.” To show real leadership, China must recognize the needs of downstream nations and acknowledge that those communities’ demands are as legitimate as and equal to its own. Lower Mekong nations are waiting.

Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of "Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions."

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