In a rare criticism, a Lao government expert has blamed dams in China for the latest drop in levels of the Mekong River, saying this is impacting navigation along the key Southeast Asian artery and destroying fishing resources.
Aside from the current dry spell in mainland Southeast Asia, Chinese dams on the upper Mekong river are causing water levels to decline in the downstream areas in Central Laos, including the Vientiane provincial area, a water resources expert at the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources told RFA.
“Chinese dams are part of [the problem] because they still cannot fill up their reservoirs as expected," the expert said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
He said that some parts of the river had dried up so much that one can cross the river by foot. Some sections of the Mekong River are believed to be drying up faster than at the same time last year.
China has dammed much of the upper Mekong, but few structures obstruct the rest of the 3,000-mile (4,900-kilometer) river as it continues its course through Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
Studies by the Stimson Center, a U.S.-based think tank, said four completed Chinese dams "are already altering the river’s hydrology and impeding the flow of nutrient-rich silt that sustains soil productivity, nurtures fisheries, and keeps the sea at bay in the Mekong Delta."
Two of the Chinese dams have some of the world’s largest reservoirs and can store or release enough water to affect the flow of the river as far as the Mekong Delta, more than 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles) to the south, the center said.
The Lao government expert's criticism at China is unusual. China's influence on its small neighbor has been rising on the back of its growing economic clout, underscoring links between the dominant communist parties of the two countries.
"This year is unusual, but still less than the previous year. Let's wait until May,” the expert said, explaining the dropping water level problem in the Vientiane provincial area.
"[There have been] impacts on navigation from China to Vientiane, fish habitat [have been] destroyed, and agriculture [has also been affected] along the [river] bank," he said.
"In some parts of the river, people can cross by foot."
The low Mekong water levels are not confined to the Vientiane's provincial area alone.
The sagging levels on the river in Laos’s central Khammouane province are also hindering the shipping trade.
Traders in Khammouane’s Hinboun district, which borders Thailand along the Mekong, normally rely on the river to transport their goods.
“Last year the Mekong River did not dry up as quickly as it has this year. It will dry more in April and May,” a Hinboun merchant said recently.
“It is difficult to navigate because there are many sandbars.”
He feared no boats would be able to run in April and May, as now only two routes remain navigable.
Last March, water levels fell in Laos's northern Bokeo province, with local authorities warning that boats of 100 tons and above could not navigate the Mekong between southern China, Laos, and Thailand.
Water in the Mekong River has also dried up in areas located in three districts in northeast Thailand, the Bangkok Post newspaper said last month, quoting local officials.
The areas where water has dried up are in the Muang, Tha Uthen, and That Phanom districts.
Reported by RFA's Lao service. Translated by Somnet Inthapannha. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.