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Manipulating the Mekong

So far, China has not joined the four-nation Mekong River Commission, which coordinates development.

"The Chinese government is not concerned about the impact on the lives of people downstream," said Chainarong Settachua, director of the Southeast Asia Rivers Network.

Throughout Southeast Asia, farmers and fishermen complain that China's thirst for hydroelectric power is choking the Mekong River, which sustains some 70 million people. (Peter S. Goodman -- The Washington Post)

Beijing asserts rights to do what it wants on its portion of the Mekong, while arguing that its dams could lessen flooding downriver. China also cites the absence of data definitively linking its dams to trouble downstream. A spokesman for China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said China considers the environmental impacts of its hydroelectric dams.

The United Nations' 1997 Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses requires nations sharing a waterway to coordinate development and lessen the effect on downstream communities. But China's neighbors so far have muted their criticism, preferring to promote trade. Laos has its own dam-building plans. Thailand hopes to buy electricity produced by China. Cambodia's government sees China as a key source of aid.

"What can we do?" said Khy, the Cambodian minister. "They are upstream. They are a richer country operating in their own sovereign territory. How can we stop them?"

On a journey down portions of the Mekong in early November, China's industrial ambitions contrasted with the struggles of its neighbors. North of the Chinese town of Jinghong in Yunnan province, some 5,000 people are scouting new places to live, having been told by the government that their land would soon be under water.

Ai Bin and his family, members of the Bulang ethnic minority, prepared to dismantle their house and move it to higher ground. Rice and rubber farmers, they built their house four years ago for what constituted their life savings -- about $3,000. Brick by brick, board by board, they must now take it apart, carry it up the mountain and put it back together.

"It's so much trouble," Ai said.

Just downstream, around a series of jungle-covered hills, the cause of his dislocation gleamed under a tropical sun. In eight years, the dam at Jinghong is expected to produce 1,500 megawatts of power, boosting by more than 50 percent the energy delivered by two other dams already in place upriver -- the Manwan dam, completed in 1996, and the Dachaoshan, launched a year ago. Further upriver at Xiaowan, work has begun on a dam that will tower 900 feet over the Mekong. Slated for completion by 2012, it would stand second only to China's controversial Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River.

With China now rationing energy in key industrial areas, the Yunnan's rivers have become central to boosting the supply of electricity. A frontier mission is also at play. Dam building in China is championed as part of the construction of a modern nation, much as the taming of the Colorado and Columbia rivers in the United States gave form to American ambitions.

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