The Irrawaddy 5 March 2010
By VANNAPHONE SITTHIRATH / IPS WRITER
VIENTIANE — Like many residents of this slow-paced Lao capital, graduate student Packno usually enjoys meeting up with her family and friends for dinner at any of the restaurants along the Mekong River.
It is still accurate to say that for Laos’ 6.3 million people, the Mekong River remains a very important part of their everyday lives. But lately, it has also become a source of their daily worries as its water level continues to drop given the drought that has been plaguing wide areas of the Mekong region and Southeast Asia.
From north to south, people in this landlocked country are hauling less fish and harvesting fewer crops largely because of the Mekong’s unusually low water levels. Here in the capital, taps that used to gush water are spewing only air at certain times of the day.
According to ‘Vientiane Mai’ newspaper, the Kaolieo Water Station here that used to produce 60,000 cubic metres was down to half of that amount, sending authorities scrambling for shovels and pumps to get water to households and farms.
"I was quite in a shock to realize that (the water level of ) the significant Mekong river that is used by the six countries has dropped this much," says Somsin Thammachaleun, who works as a disc jockey. "There must be something wrong with it. It’s very abnormal this year."
"(It) made my life more difficult," he says of the situation. "In February this year, some days there was no water in the morning and evening at all. To shower at night, I had to wait until 11 p.m. There was no water for us to wash our face or to brush our teeth, but now it’s better since the authorities (brought in) pumping machines."
Indeed, it is quite normal for the Mekong to dry up at certain areas during the dry season, with water levels at their lowest during April and May. This year, however, the levels have dropped far too early, taking many by surprise.
For instance, at Nakoung village, about 80 kilometres from downtown Vientiane, a cargo ship has gotten stuck in a sandbar that now seems to stretch endlessly. Or as Nakoung farmer Somphone Soulaythong puts it, "The sandbar on the river this year is unusually long."
Almost all the 600 or so residents of Nakoung are rice farmers who depend on the Mekong to irrigate their fields and supply their households. Today, though, the floating pumping station that is used for the village’s irrigation system needs a deeper channel to drive
water up and inland.
According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), Mekong River levels are now below those seen in at least 50 years. It also said that these were caused by the relatively short 2009 wet season, as well as the low rainfall last year in China’s Yunnan province, northern Thailand, and northern Laos.
Some non-government organizations and the media, however, have also speculated that China may have also been at fault and had been busy filling up its dams located upstream.
It’s a theory that has gained some following among the likes of Somphone, who says, "The low rainfall last year might be a small part of the drought, but too many dams building up in China should be the main cause. They need to stock up water in their reservoirs to produce electricity so they block the water."
The farmer says he heard this from news reports broadcast by Thai radio, which many Lao residents listen to from across the border. Somsin the disc jockey adds, "I heard the Thai media saying the dams in China and climate change are the cause of the severe Mekong
drought, but recently I heard that China does not block the water."
Packno, who is working on a master’s degree in environmental studies, says, "It’s not that simple to blame this or that. We have to think about how we have used the water from the Mekong long time ago and how we have managed the use of water.
Climate change can be part of this drought because it’s too hot and this can make the river dry out."
One fisher at Donchan island in Vientiane says that why "the Mekong has changed a lot" has everything to do with the way people have not taken care of the environment. In the past, he says, Laos had no mining industry and people did not destroy the nature like people now are doing.
"Now," says the fisher, "they not only take down trees but even take the root of trees. Natural resources have been taken, so there is no balance for nature to adjust itself."
No wonder, he says, that the river has become shallower, making it hard for fisherfolk like him to catch fish. "People ask to buy fish from me, but I do not have enough fish to sell," says the 58-year-old fisher.
Packno herself observes, "If the river (water level) continues to drop until April, I am not sure what will happen with the giant (Mekong) catfish that normally lay eggs in April. It is an endangered species."
"Fish are like human beings," remarks the Donchan fisher. "They need a place to stay. If there is no place for them to live they would just go…like us."
He says he used to grow vegetables on the side, but stopped when it became difficult to get water from the Mekong. Instead, he and his family buy produce that they then sell at the market.
"What if farmers cannot produce enough vegetable or rice, for instance," wonders Packno, trying to imagine what could happen if the Mekong River’s levels do not improve. "That would result in domestic production shortage and we would import more (of these)."
She then begins to worry that should rural farmers become unable to work their arid fields, they would migrate to the capital, spurring profound changes in their way of life.
Packno says it is time all the six countries that share the Mekong River—Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam—cooperate in water management.
"Each country needs to develop its economy so each country needs to use the Mekong," she says. "We all face trade-offs. We want to get this one but we have to lose another one. We have to balance the impacts in terms of dams. We have to have a policy that reduces the impact on biodiversity."
"The severe drought situation is the problem of not only one country, so all six countries have to talk and find solutions together," Packno also says. "It’s hard to blame China for building dams. Laos and other neighbouring countries constructed dams as well."
Disc jockey Somsin points out, "Many people still do not care much about this Mekong River and many still do not know that the water they use and their drinking water come from it."