Mekong Drought Affects Shan Communities

The Irrawaddy 17 March 2010


A severe drought, which has been called the worst in half a century, is threatening people’s livelihoods in eastern Shan state where 234 kilometers of the Mekong River runs through Burma, according to organizations working in the area.

“The people who live along the river are facing the worst situation in a long time, which has severely affected their way of living,” Japhet Jakui, the director of the Lahu National Development Organisation (LNDO), told The Irrawaddy.

The organization, which closely monitors the Mekong River in Shan State, estimated that more than 22,000 indigenous people made up of Akha, Shan, Lahu, Sam Tao, Chinese and En communities, live by the river. Many have told LNDO that their river-side farming practices have suffered as a result of the drought.

In an attempt to lure more Chinese logging business into the region, the Burmese regime has forbidden local residents from cutting trees. Unable to clear land for rice paddy fields,  more people have become dependent on the river-side areas for their survival, said Japhet Jakui.

The drought has also reduced the levels of fish in the Mekong as fluctuations in the water level have disrupted fishing migrations, according to residents.  Local fishermen who survive off fish to feed their families have reported less fish, smaller fish and the disappearance of some species.

“The drought has meant that they are unable to fish or grow plants leaving many people too hungry and unable to travel freely,” said Japhet Jakui.

The majority of the communities work for Chinese businesses that have come into the area for logging. However, with river levels so low this has made it very difficult for logging to take place and LNDO reports that many residents have lost their jobs and income as river transport comes to a standstill.

Movement in the area has also been restricted since a drug gang clashed with Burmese troops making it difficult for locals to travel to other areas to find food. This has been made worse by an increased presence of soldiers in the area to increase security while cease-fire groups contest the regime's border guard force proposal.

The river is reported to be dropping about 10 centimeters every day and is expected to get worse till May when the rain begins again, according to provincial meteorological stations in Yunnan and Guizhou.

Up stream in China, the river is so low that more than 20 boats have been grounded while navigating down the river. China’s marine affairs department has stopped issuing pass permits to vessels and repeatedly sent warnings to foreign vessels, telling them of the danger.

Twelve of the 14 cities in southern China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region are now affected by drought, the regional flood-control and drought relief authority announced on Monday.

NGO’s blame a series of  hydro-power dams in China for creating regular water fluctuations.

“The drought is a result of the Chinese hydro power developments up stream. We can see water fluctuations in the river,” Khun Pianporn Deetes of Chiang Mai-based Living Rivers Siam told The Irrawaddy.

“In February, the water level was 12.5 cm, then in a week it was 30cm and then back again. This is not due to lack of rain. The fluctuations create lots of problems for the river.”

Downstream in Laos rice fields around the Mekong are suffering as the drought worsens and salt water has seeped into the fields, ruining crops.

At the end of February, a Lao Water and Environmental Resources official in Laos publicly accused Chinese dam operators of contributing to the low level of the Mekong by retaining water for irrigation and electricity generation. Four of eight dams have already been completed in China.

“If China doesn’t release water, we have a problem. We don’t have water for our tributary rivers either. The Nam Ou, Nam Khan, and Nam Xieng rivers are all dried up,” the official said.

“When China shuts its dam water gates, we in Laos cannot use our boats.”

However, the Mekong River Commission says the water shortage is largely a result of an early end to the 2009 rainy season and less rainfall during the past monsoon season.

"At this stage there is no indication that the existence of dams upstream has made the situation more extreme than the natural case," The Associated Press quoted from commission report.

China declined an invitation to become a member of the Mekong River Commission and has long been criticized for its lack of transparency regarding its dams. Treating the dams as a national security issue, little detailed information has been released about the level of water the dams use.

In response to criticism, China has invited members of each of the four Mekong countries, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia, to visit its Jinghong dam, one of four dams it operates on the river and observe their water management.

Khun Pianporn Deetes suggested that in order to prevent the same problems occurring next year there needs to more transparency between the countries in the Mekong basin.

“It’s most urgent that the Chinese government coordinates with downstream countries and exchanges information so we can prepare for the droughts by knowing how much water is being released. The ultimate goal is for China to stop the dams and allow the Mekong to flow naturally,” she said.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has asked for China’s help with the drought situation but hasn’t blamed China’s dams for the problems. Leaving behind  demonstrations in Bangkok, he traveled this week to drought-affected areas in Phitsanulok and then  traveledon to the Bhumibol Dam in Tak.

The Mekong supplies water to an estimated 65 million people as it winds its way through six countries.