The Chinese have ambitious plans for producing hydro-electricity on the Mekong. Irrigation schemes, using dams on the mainstream have not been mooted as there is generally sufficient water for agriculture in Yunnan. Irrigation is usually managed on a relatively small and local scale.
The water of many of the tributaries of the river has been harnessed on a small scale for hydro-electric purposes for years. There are many hydro-electric plants, most of them supplying county scale localities. Some of these have reservoirs, some do not. The frequency of fast flowing streams and waterfalls in this precipitous country, and the fact that melting snow ensures a flow of water which renders plants operable even during the dry season means that the constraints on the production of hydro-electricity that apply further downstream do not apply with anything like the same force in Yunnan.
The technology of these small plants is simple, yet ingenious. Equipment is not sophisticated: many of the generators are of East European origin, and date from the 1950s. Many do not have reservoirs. Their effectiveness relies on local topography and changes in hydrological cycles to bring about the increased velocity of water flows at critical points. Not all the plants are hooked into a wider electricity grid. Some are linked into grids which incorporate several dams situated in neighbouring counties. County administrations often have complex arrangements for buying and selling electric power to one another in attempts to flatten out peaks and troughs in supply and demand for electricity caused by the characteristics of different plants, and the different requirements of different sorts of local industries.
Overall, the degree of local autonomy county and prefectural administrations have in determining how the electricity is used is striking in contrast with the highly centralised arrangements which exist in Thailand. The existence of viable small hydro-plants also raises the question regarding the possible viability of such interventions elsewhere in the Mekong river system, particularly in Laos. Although Yunnan appears uniquely suitable for such schemes, they appear not to have been seriously considered elsewhere, such has been the enthusiasm for very large dams and for regional grids which essentially focus on the supply of electricity to Bangkok.
The plans by the Chinese authorities for large dams on their stretch of the Mekong represent a quantum leap from their existing usage of the river system . For a start, they project for the first time, construction of dams on the mainstream of the river. There are firm plans for eight dams, less definitely formulated plans for six more. These are located at various points between Jinghong in the south, to the far north, not far from the Tibetan border. One of these dams has already been completed, although it is not yet in full operation. This is Manwan Dam, which is the only dam to be completed anywhere on the mainstream of the Mekong. This is a large dam, with an installed capacity of 1000 megawatts, and a wall 150 metres high. Construction of other dams is not far advanced. Preliminary work has begun on Xiaowan dam, which is to have an installed capacity of about 2500 megawatts. A dam of similar specifications is planned downstream from Jinghong.
It is uncertain how the electricity generated by Manwan is to be distributed. It is certain, however, that it would not be on a local basis. The amount of energy generation will be so much greater, and the greater proportion of the finance for the dam came from national sources, so it was certain that Beijing would have a greater say in how the power will be distributed. Officials have variously stated that power would be channelled to Kunming, but most of the power would go to booming coastal provinces like Guangdong, and that at least some of the power would be sold to Thailand. The latter would seem the most unlikely possibility, for lines of transmission to the south are scarcely developed, and because the Thai, for political as well as economic reasons, seemed to consider the power from Laotian dams to be a more attractive option. Nevertheless, such are the complexities of regional hydropolitics, that very recent reports are indicating that Thai energy authorities are trying to make their purchase of power from Lao dams contingent upon the Lao allowing the Thai to construct power lines through Lao territory to link in with the Yunnan grid. Furthermore, the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand (EGAT) and the Yunnan Provincial Electric Power Bureau have made an agreement to investigate the feasibility of private firms developing Mekong hydropower in Yunnan. Currently under specific investigation are projects at Jinghong and Mensong. So it would seem that at least in the eyes of the Thai, utilisation of power generated by the Mekong dams in Yunnan is still on the agenda.10
The maps of projected dams in Yunnan produced by the Kunming office of the Commission for Science and Technology, an important China-wide planning body, bear a striking resemblance in the sheer magnitude of their technocratic ambition to those produced for the Lower Mekong (downstream from the Chinese border) by the Interim Mekong Committee up until the late 1970s. The latter envisaged a ‘cascade’ of dams located at various points along the river from northern Laos, to central Cambodia. The centre piece was to be a huge dam, Pa Mong, near Vientiane. The reservoir of this dam would have been vast, inundating a huge area of valuable agricultural land, and forcing the resettlement of tens of thousands of people. Plans for Pa Mong and other dams with large reservoirs were abandoned (or scaled down) in the face of political and environmental realities. - but not before the expenditure of millions of dollars in preparatory work.11
It seems also unlikely whether all of the dams projected for the Mekong in China will go ahead, finance being the most likely impediment. Multilateral agencies like the World Bank and to a lesser extent the ADB are becoming increasingly shy about funding large dams, having received strong adverse publicity from underwriting dams which are controversial on environmental, humanitarian and even economic grounds elsewhere in the world. If multilateral funding was withheld, the Chinese would have to raise the finance either domestically, or on the international money market. Domestic funds in China are under increasing pressure owing to the sheer demand for finance for infrastructural development all over the nation to support growth targets. Funds from the international market would be relatively expensive and would make the dams less economically attractive. Moreover, the leadership of the country has staked a lot of its prestige on the massive Three Gorges Dam project on the Yangtze, which will consume a lion’s share of funds available for energy projects. The emphasis it has been given may well lead to a downgrading of other projects, including the Mekong dams.