AFP - Southeast Asian nations on the Mekong River pledged Monday to step up cooperation over the shrinking waterway amid fears China's dams are exacerbating a severe regional drought.
Leaders of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam -- the member-states of the Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- convened in the Thai coastal town of Hua Hin to discuss management of the river, on which more than 60 million people rely.
"Without good and careful management of the Mekong river as well as its natural resources, this great river will not survive," Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva said as he opened the summit, the first in the MRC's history.
"The Mekong river is being threatened by serious problems arising from both the unsustanable use of water and the effects of climate change," he warned.
China -- itself suffering the worst drought in a century in its southwest, with more than 24 million people short of drinking water -- attended the talks as a dialogue partner of the MRC, as did military-ruled Myanmar.
Vice Foreign Minister Song Tao led the Beijing delegation to the summit, which comes after river levels in northern Thailand and Laos hit five-decade lows, according to the commission.
The situation has alarmed communities along the Mekong, which is the world's largest inland fishery and vital for the region's transport, drinking water and irrigation.
The abnormally low levels have raised fears over already endangered species such as the Mekong giant catfish.
The Chinese arrived Sunday and met for talks with MRC countries seeking more information about the economic power's hydropower dams, seen by activists as being behind the current water shortage.
"Sharing knowledge and data is among the crucial measures to mitigate problems... in each country as well as helping alleviate poverty in the region as a whole," Abhisit said.
He thanked Beijing, which has eight planned or existing dams on the mainstream river, for recently agreeing to share data from two stations during this dry season.
"I also hope that such genuine effort of cooperation would become more regular," said Abhisit.
China insists extreme dry conditions have caused the current ebbing flows -- a claim backed up by the MRC's own analysis.
MRC member-states ratified a Hua Hin declaration Monday committing to sustainable development of the river basin.
The MRC has warned that the health of the Mekong Basin and the river's eco-systems could be threatened by proposed dams and expanding populations.
Thailand has invoked a tough security law and has deployed thousands of troops in Hua Hin to ensure protesters do not disrupt the summit, in light of mass anti-government "Red Shirt" rallies in Bangkok since mid-March.
Abhisit arrived at the summit Sunday from a tense Bangkok, where tens of thousands of red-shirted supporters of fugitive ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra have paralysed the capital's tourist heartland, seeking snap elections.