Drought drops Mekong River to nearly 2-decade low

AP 4 March 2010


BANGKOK — Severe drought has dropped the Mekong River to its lowest level in nearly 20 years, halting some cargo traffic and boat tours on the Asian waterway that is the lifeblood for 65 million people in six countries, a draft report said.

The decrease was caused largely by an early end to the 2009 wet season and low rainfall during the monsoons, rather than dams built upstream in China, according to documents drafted by the Mekong River Commission.

"At this stage there is no indication that the existence of dams upstream has made the situation more extreme than the natural case," said the draft report seen by The Associated Press on Wednesday.

Nongovernmental organizations have long blamed China for shrinking the Mekong and causing other ecological damage by building dams. A dozen exist or are planned on the river in the country where it originates.

But dams have also been built or planned in other countries, principally on the river's many tributaries in Laos.

Senior officials from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam met Wednesday in Luang Prabang, Laos, to discuss the river. China and Myanmar, the other two riparian countries, are not commission members.

The report said the river level in southwestern China is the lowest in 50 years, with only half the volume that would be normal in February. Levels at mainstream measuring stations in Laos and northern Thailand are below those in 1992.

River tour operators have stopped services on stretches of the river in Laos and cargo vessels have been halted in China's Yunnan province, the report said.

The commission said the water scarcity has sparked fears of food shortages, lack of access to clean water and impoverishment in some of Southeast Asia's poorest regions.

"This situation represents a wide regional hydrological drought affecting all countries in the upper part of the (Mekong) basin," the report said. It also noted the commission will hold further discussions with China but gave no details.