Reeling From Drought

The current dry spell is wreaking havoc in Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam.
2011-03-10
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A boy stands on a drought-hit rice field near Vientiane, March 27, 2010. The drought in Laos is expected to be worse this year.
AFP

A drought in mainland Southeast Asia is pushing down water levels of rivers that act as life-lines to farms, drying up wells, degrading the quality of drinking water, and threatening to disrupt power supply driven by hydro-dams.

In Vietnam, the dry spell has also led to "intrusion" of salt water from the sea, damaging crops and adding salinity to tap water, while in landlocked Laos marine transport has been affected by languishing levels of the Mekong River, Southeast Asia's key artery.

In Cambodia, residents said the dropping river level problem was compounded by dams established upstream in neighboring Vietnam, while in Burma rice cultivation is being severely threatened by the dry weather conditions. 

"This year the temperature is rather high. The temperature has been rising for a week now," said a Burmese woman visiting Bogalay township, a key rice-producing region in southwestern Burma.

In describing the situation particularly in the villages of Magu and Kyun Nyo, she said there was less rain than expected and water levels in wells were fast drying up.

In some places in the Irrawaddy division, which occupies the delta region of the key Irrawaddy River, the wells were not deep enough to get safe drinking water, adding high levels of arsenic, the woman told RFA, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Water shortage has been a perennial problem in Burma every summer, and has been made worse by government mismanagement and corruption.

Some individual and group donors transporting drinking water to affected areas had been stopped by local authorities who demanded money from them, eyewitnesses said.

Volunteers were also questioned by government officials fearing social unrest over the water shortages.

Last year, the water shortage was most severe in the Irrawaddy, Sagaing, Rangoon, Mandalay, and Pegu Divisions, where people faced difficulty even getting clean drinking water, causing diarrhea outbreaks.

Severe water shortages were also reported in the ethnic Shan, Mon, and Rakhine States.

The drought slashed water levels in Burma’s largest natural lake, Inle, in the Shan hill region, by half as temperatures hit a record high last year.

Marine transport

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In Bokeo, the northern province of Laos, local authorities warned that boats of 100 tons and above could not navigate the Mekong River between southern China, Laos, and Thailand due to falling water levels.

The number of boats plying the three areas has been reduced to two from five previously.

Officials said the problem was compounded by sand dunes that had started to appear in many areas along the river bed.

"The drought is settling in earlier than before, which lowers the level of the Mekong faster," said Somchay Sivolavong, head of the provincial Bokeo marine transport department.

As a result of the river transport problem, the so-called Route R3A road connecting Southern China and Thailand via Laos is being heavily used, officials said.

Cambodians living along the Sesan river, a major tributary of the Mekong that flows through central Vietnam and northeast Cambodia, said the dry weather had made the water levels "unstable," impacting their livelihood.

The residents in Lum Laeng village in Andong Meas district in the Ratanakiri province bordering Vietnam said the fluctuating water levels were partly caused by Vietnamese dams built  upstream.

Meach Mean, coordinator of a river protection network, told RFA that six Vietnamese hydro-dams were "the main cause of the instability affecting the environment, the water regime, and the livelihood of the villagers."

Bigger problem

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Boys playing football along the dried Mekong River bed in Vientiane.


 
Vietnam itself is saddled with bigger problems from the drought. The government said three of the biggest reservoirs in the north, which supply water needed to irrigate crops, were nearly empty, even though less of their water was used than in previous years, according to a Vietnam News report.

In the central part of the country, water levels were alarmingly low in major rivers, while stretches of the Tra Khuc and Ve rivers in Quang Ngai Province were completely dry, it said.

According to the government's National Center for Hydro-Meteorological Forecasting, Quang Ngai will face a severe drought this year.

In Ho Chi Minh City and the Mekong Delta region, the drought has led to an intrusion of sea water, destroying crops and affecting drinking water.

Warnings have been issued to areas facing threat from sea water, said Nguyen Nhan Quang,  a former Vietnamese representative in the Mekong River Commission, an intergovernmental body among Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.

“Recent low water levels in the Mekong Delta have affected people who rely on fishing," said  Tran Anh Thu, deputy director of the natural resources and environment department.

Reservoirs

He was particularly referring to Vietnam's An Giang province bordering Cambodia.

Water levels at hydro-power reservoirs have also declined sharply, threatening power supply, officials said.

Load shedding may be unavoidable during the dry season, since power output is declining even as demand is rising, state-run power company Electricity of Vietnam said.

More than half of Vietnam's electricity is generated from hydro-dams.

Reported by RFA's Burmese, Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese services. Translation by Khin May Zaw, Viengsay Luangkhot, Somnet Inthapannha, SokRy Sum, and An Nguyen. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.