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Dams and Damned Drought

It is water festival time throughout Southeast Asia, but the region is facing its worst drought in decades.

This week is Buddhist New Year and most nations across Southeast Asia traditionally celebrate with water festivals – Thingyan in Myanmar, Songkran in Thailand and Pi Mai in Laos. However, this year authorities have warned would-be revellers not to get too carried away and have encouraged the use of spray bottles and other water-saving, but fun-killing, props.

Severe drought conditions across Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos are seriously impacting the region and the potential consequences, particularly for the poorest communities, are dire. In parts of northern Cambodia and northern Thailand, water supplies have already run out and governments are now faced with the job of transporting large quantities of water to remote regions on pot-holed roads.

Part of the current problem stems from the El Niño phenomenon which has hit the region, causing temperatures to soar and delaying the monsoon season by up to four months. This delay means farmers have had to postpone planting rice, a chief source of income for the rural community, and this has already contributed to food and drinking water shortages.

Exacerbating the naturally occurring drought are a large number of proposed dams along the Mekong River. Stretching 4,350 kilometres in length, the Mekong is the world’s twelfth longest river and the seventh longest in Asia. A recent report estimated that the Lower Mekong Basin fisheries are the source of approximately 13% of all fish caught globally in 2015, at a total value of $7 billion.

Scientists have estimated that the proposed Mekong dams threaten the livelihoods of around 60 million people who both live and depend on the river, not only for fishing but also for growing rice and for other agricultural production. Fisheries along the Mekong contribute 18% to Cambodia’s gross domestic product (GDP) while Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region accounts for 33% of the nation’s agricultural sector and 90% of the nation’s rice exports. The Cambodian population sources 80% of its protein from fish caught in the Mekong River.

The leader of Laos, Bounnhang Vorachith, has said there will be “no impact” on neighbouring countries by the dams proposed to be built in his country. However he has provided little evidence to support this assertion. Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen recently also rejected claims that the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams, two of the largest hydropower dams under construction, both in Laos, have had any impact on the current drought. The Prime Minister told reporters that: “The issue of having water or not having water depends on the sky.”

In total 70 dams are projected to exist along the Mekong by 2030, many of them in Laos and further upstream in China. While the Don Sahong and Xayaburi dams, among others, have the potential to provide large benefits for Laos and China, their impact on downstream nations Cambodia and Vietnam will likely be dismal.

However both Cambodia and Vietnam have also built dams within their borders along the Mekong, which somewhat undermines their ability to argue against the construction of new dams, particularly in Laos where the potential for hydropower to lift the land-locked nation out of poverty is significant. What is certain is that greater regional cooperation on this issue is critical.

One attempt at regional cooperation took the form of the Mekong River Commission (MRC), established in 1995, but it now widely considered ineffective as a mechanism to resolve disputes between countries desperate to share ever-dwindling water resources. As it stands currently, the MRC is a purely advisory body with no enforcement powers. Critically, the MRC only comprises Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, with China and Myanmar technically ‘dialogue partners’ but showing no signs of wanting to become regular members.

For its part, China has made a much publicised offer to release water from one of its dams in southern Yunnan Province in order to address the growing crisis. However, several experts have noted the futility of such a short-term measure. Not only is the measure temporary, but China is seen as one of the chief causes of the current water shortage, having built so many dams along their part of the Mekong.

With no relief from drought conditions predicted for the next four to five months, more certainly needs to be done to address the needs of the region’s poorest. As people are forced to use contaminated water supplies, the risk of water-born diseases such as diarrhoea, one of the biggest killers of children worldwide, increases significantly. A delayed rice planting season will also likely leave millions without an income.

Caitlin McCaffrie is currently based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and has an interest in Indo-Pacific regional politics.

This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence. Please email with any questions or for more information.

Image credit: Alexis Gravel (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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