Mekong nations face severe drought made worse by dams

The four lower Mekong River basin countries of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam should expect severe to extreme drought—compounded by dams—to persist until January, threatening agricultural production and causing water shortages, experts warned Tuesday (Nov 19).

According to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the drought has brought the water levels of the Mekong River to their lowest levels in at least 60 years. Further, most parts of the lower Mekong basin have been experiencing shallow flow since June.

An MRC preliminary analysis noted that the drought would hit Cambodia and Thailand harder than Laos and Vietnam.

“The drought is caused by insufficient rainfall during the wet season with a delayed arrival and earlier departure of the monsoon rain and an El Niño event that has created an abnormally high temperature and high evapotranspiration,” the commission said.

During a typical year, the monsoon rains usually start in late May and end in October. But this year, they began almost two weeks late and stopped about three weeks earlier.

Lam Hung Son, head of the MRC’s regional flood and drought management center, said that this year’s prolonged dry weather condition could adversely impact agricultural and crop production in the member countries.

“The issue of water shortage for consumption could also come into play as the drought persists,” he added.

The drought condition is forecast to worsen from next month to early January, with most parts of the lower Mekong basin having little to no rain.

Experts say the dam-building mania in China and Laos has aggravated the drought.

“These are causing the Mekong to die a death of a thousand cuts,” said Brian Eyler, author of The Last Days of the Mighty Mekong.

The latest dam is the $4.47 billion Thai-owned Xayaburi Dam that went into operation end of last month in Laos after years of warnings over adverse environmental impacts.

“I don’t want any more dam construction,” said fisherman Sup Aunkaew, who tossed a poor catch into his boat, adding that the fish spawning habits have been “confused” by the unseasonably low water levels.

CKPower–a subsidiary of the Thai builder and majority shareholder CH Karnchang–built the 1,285-megawatt Xayaburi dam. The company went ahead with construction despite protests in Thailand, which is buying most of the electricity.

The MRC Council, the MRC’s highest ministerial body, will meet and discuss the drought issue next week during an annual gathering in Phnom Penh.

The council is expected to approve a Drought Management Strategy as part of ongoing efforts to address much-needed mitigation measures, information sharing, and dissemination mechanisms about drought.


General view of Mekong River, Ban Namprai village, Nong Khai province, Thailand, on Oct 8. Picture credit: Reuters/Bangkok Post