(Bloomberg) --

The Mekong is one of Asia’s most important rivers, supporting 60 million people in Southeast Asia. But for the second consecutive year, the lower Mekong basin has hit a record low water flow, affecting irrigation, rice production and fisheries, all vital to the region’s food security. The drought has also damaged habitats for turtles, reptiles and other critically endangered species. 

A reduction in rainfall has caused some of the water loss, according to an August report by the Mekong River Commission. But it also points a finger at upstream hydropower dams—mostly in China—that have held back a large amount of water. The Mekong River originates in China’s Tibetan plateau.

Critics say those dams will continue to be a source of conflict unless China moves to other ways of producing power and cooperation increases among the countries.

The country could “invest in more climate-resilient approaches to water and agriculture, and to prioritize the cheaper and more flexible forms of low-carbon power generation, such as solar, rather than dam building,” said Sam Geall, executive director at environmental non-profit China Dialogue and associate faculty member at the Science Policy Research Unit at the University of Sussex. “But if it remains focused on hydro-engineering, it is likely to run into further conflict with downstream communities.”

Beijing launched a Mekong water cooperation initiative called Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework (LMC) in 2016, with five other countries—Laos, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam. Critics welcomed the potential for cooperation, but also said it could allow China to weaponize water for economic and geopolitical gains. 

Earlier this year, a different report linked the Mekong’s lowest water level in half a century last year to its dam operations. China denied the findings, saying low rainfall was also recorded in the upstream.

China has also been criticized for releasing spotty information about river flows. It provides its water level and rainfall data only during the flood season from two of its many stations on the Upper Mekong, an amount that is “insufficient” for water management purposes, according to the commission. 

In late August, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said during the third meeting of the LMC that China will share the hydrological information with Mekong countries starting this year, but details have not been forthcoming. 

“Engineering projects pose great uncertainties to complex food, water and energy systems,” Geall said. “China has particular responsibilities to share water with its downstream neighbors equitably.” 

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