Tag Archives: Mekong river

Series of Unfortunate Water Events-1- water shortage Vietnam

Mekong Delta, Vietnam. image from wikipedia

2016: Drought is plaguing much of mainland South-East Asia, including Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia. Thailand’s shortages are the worst for two decades,  Vietnam has been hit as hard as any. The Mekong basin is home to one-fifth of the population. It produces about half of the country’s rice. The government says the amount available for export in the three months to June will be 11% less than originally forecast. Drought in the country’s Central Highlands has affected a third of coffee plantations there and now endangers the region’s supply of drinking water. These woes are weighing on the economy. Growth in the first quarter slowed by half a percent year-on-year to 5.5%.

The immediate cause is El Niño…People living near the Mekong say there is another problem: hydroelectric dams built in China near the head of the river that are holding up its flow. Since March China has loosened some of the dam gates, ostensibly as a favour to its neighbours. But locals say the effect on water levels has been measly. The episode has only heightened fears that China (with which Vietnam has an enormous trade deficit and an intense territorial dispute) can use water flow to hold the country to ransom.

The dams are certainly stripping the Mekong of essential sediment. But many of Vietnam’s water woes are self-inflicted. In the delta, for example, a booming population has built more than 1m wells since the 1960s. These have made saline contamination worse, and are also causing subsidence. In 2014 an American study found that the delta, which mostly lies less than two metres above sea level, could be nearly a metre lower by 2050.

A related problem is the ruling Communist Party’s obsession with maximising rice production. Straining to hit absurd targets—inspired by memories of post-war food shortages—the government has pushed delta farmers to produce three rice crops per year.

This policy has caused the poisoning of paddies with pesticides and has discouraged farming of more profitable, less thirsty crops. It has also prompted the building of a massive network of dykes, canals and sluice gates, which spread pollution from fertilisers and pesticides and restrict the flow of sediment. Koos Neefjes, a climate-change expert in Hanoi, the capital, reckons all this infrastructure has done more to harm the delta than China’s dams.

Fixing this will mean taking on powerful state-owned rice traders and exporters, who benefit from intensive production.

Excerpts Vietnam’s drying delta: Salt of the earth, Economist, Apr. 30, 2016, at 37

Divide and Conquer the Mekong River; the new giant dam

Laos has given the go-ahead to build a massive dam on the lower Mekong river, despite opposition from neighbouring countries and environmentalists.  Landlocked Laos is one of South-east Asia’s poorest countries and its strategy for development is based on generating electricity from its rivers and selling the power to its neighbours, says the BBC’s Jonah Fisher in Bangkok.  Xayaburi is being built by a Thai company with Thai money – and almost all of the electricity has been pre-sold to Thailand, BBC says.

Countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam point to a report last year that said the project should be delayed while more research was done on the dam’s environmental impact. Up to now, Laos had promised not to press ahead while those concerns remained…

Laos has followed the letter, if not the spirit, of the 1995 Mekong Agreement. Under its terms, the countries that share the Mekong agree to prior consultations on the possible cross-border impact of any development on the river before deciding to proceed. Laos believes it has just done that.  Cambodia and Vietnam expressed concerns about the dam’s impact on fish migration and the flow of sediment downstream. So the Laos authorities brought in their own contractors and now say the problems have been solved.  Critics of the dam say many of the modifications to it are untested and the decision to proceed amounts to a huge experiment on one of the world’s great rivers.

Four dams already exist in the narrow gorges of the Upper Mekong in China but until now there have been none on the slower-moving lower reaches of the river..Laos deputy energy minister Viraphonh Virawong said work on the Xayaburi dam itself would begin this week, and hoped it would be the first of many….

Excerpt, Laos approves Xayaburi ‘mega’ dam on Mekong, BBC, Nov. 5, 2012

Damming the Mekong River

What looked like an admittedly temporary reprieve for the swift currents and extraordinary biodiversity of the Mekong river is now over. In December the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental body made up of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, called again for approval of a potentially devastating dam at Xayaburi in northern Laos to be withheld until more is known about its effect on the lower Mekong. Apart from high up in the gorges of south-western China, the Mekong remains undammed. But now CH. Karnchang, a Thai construction giant contracted to build a $3.8 billion dam at Xayaburi has told the Bangkok Stock Exchange that dam construction officially began on March 15th, and that 5,000 workers have just been hired.

The news has triggered an angry response from riparian neighbours. The December agreement, calling for further scientific study of the environmental impacts, included Laos. Opponents of the dam argue that the Xayaburi dam will cause immense harm to ecosystems and imperil 65m South-East Asians who rely on the Mekong, the world’s biggest inland fishery, for their sustenance.  Cambodia’s water-resources minister, Lim Kean Hor, sent a strong protest letter to Laos. He called for an immediate halt to construction until an independent assessment has been completed. Japan has just agreed to fund a study on Mekong dams, under the auspices of the MRC. Vietnam strongly backs Cambodia, and has repeatedly called for no more dams to be built on the Mekong for at least ten years. The Lao government’s failure formally to notify its Mekong partners about the construction, allowing the dam to proceed under the radar, clearly undermines the credibility of the MRC’s consultation processes. (pdf) In truth, though the Mekong Agreement signed in 1995, which gave birth to the commission, requires the four nations to consult and respect neighbours’ concerns, final decisions are left to each sovereign state.

A “Save the Mekong” campaign, chiefly among Thai non-government organisations (NGOs) has been gathering force. The NGOs complain of silence from the commission’s head office, based in the Lao capital of Vientiane. The MRC appears incapable even of sending a monitoring team to the dam site.   Perhaps Cambodia will file a complaint against Laos in an international court. More likely, as Niwat Roykaew, chairman of the Chiang Khong Mekong Conservation Group, suggests, local residents might have no choice but to use sit-ins and other obstructions in order to shut down the Mekong “friendship bridges” between Thailand and Laos, should the MRC fail to compel Laos to suspend the dam construction.

A dam on the Mekong: Opening the floodgates, Economist, May 5, 2012, at 43