On January 6, China notified the Mekong River Commission (MRC), whose Member States include Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, that it would be holding back the Mekong’s water flow for 20 days. China’s statement on the matter was delivered one day after the new U.S.-funded Mekong Dam Monitor found that disruptions to the river’s water level caused by operation of China’s Jinghong Dam had begun on December 31. China’s actions are expected to drop the river’s water level by approximately 1.2 meters and may impact river navigation and fishing operations in downstream countries, where an estimated 60 million people depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods (Reuters and Diplomat). 

China’s failure to notify the affected Southeast Asian countries of its dam operations stands in contrast to its actions in the Mekong region last fall. Last October, China promised the MRC that it would become more transparent regarding the use of its 11-dam hydropower system, going so far as to create the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Information Sharing Platform to provide water data to the public year-round (South China Morning Post).

Shortly after the launch of this platform, the United States announced its own Mekong Dam Monitor. This publicly available online platform, funded by the State Department and operated by the Stimson Center and Eyes on Earth, utilizes remote monitoring to provide real-time data on the Mekong River (Bloomberg). David Stilwell, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has stated that China operates its dams only to maximize its own hydropower capacity with little consideration for those downstream and that the Mekong Dam Monitor project is a symbol of U.S. commitment to the region (Bloomberg and South China Morning Post).