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River at Risk: The Mekong and the Water Politics of China and Southeast Asia
Lowy Institute Paper 02

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by Milton Osborne
Published on October 1st, 2004

By the middle of March 2004 there was growing concern in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia about the level of the Mekong River. Poor rains in the wet season of 2003 and a subsequent protracted dry period appeared to be largely to blame for the sharply lower level of water in the Mekong by comparison with ‘normal’ years. But the unusually dry season may not have been the only factor at work. Officials in Thailand have claimed that Chinese authorities have endeavored to limit the flow of water out of the dams already built on the Mekong in China’s Yunnan province, as they undertake new dam construction and continue work to clear the river of obstacles to navigation. At the same time, Thai officials suggest that unusual volatility in the river’s flow reflects the manner in which China has been closing its dam gates. Gates are closed for three days, before opening them for one day to allow Chinese cargo vessels to travel to and from river ports in the southern Yunnan province and northern Thailand.

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