Lao Farmers Devastated by Severe Drought

laos-drought-march-2010.jpg A boy stands on his family's drought-hit rice field near the Mekong River in the suburbs of Vientiane, in a file photo.

A lack of rainfall and scorching heat is destroying the livelihoods of Lao farmers, who say their crops are dying amid an ongoing drought in the Southeast Asian region linked to the El Niño phenomenon.

The drought since May has left those in Laos who rely on agriculture to earn a living high and dry, with one rice farmer in the capital Vientiane telling RFA’s Lao Service that this year’s rainy season has been a total wash.

“The drought has delayed our rice production during the rainy season—the rice seedlings have dried out because there is no water,” the farmer named Khampong said.

“Even though it has rained continuously over the last few days, there still isn’t enough water at this point. The majority of farmers dare not plant their rice seedlings because they will die.”

Khampong said that if the drought continues, he will not even bother with rice production this year “because it won’t be worthwhile.”

Another farmer from Vientiane named Chang told RFA that he had lost a significant amount of capital because he had no vegetables to sell at the local market.

“After all of this hot weather due to the drought, the recent rain caused my vegetables to die, because they were unable to adjust to the change in weather,” he said.

According to a report by the official Vientiane Times, farmers in the northwestern Lao province of Xayaburi are being particularly hard hit during the drought.

The paper cited Agriculture and Forestry Department officials in the province as saying that more than 1,000 hectares (2,470 acres) of upland crop area has been affected, with 420 hectares (1,040 acre) reported as seriously damaged.

More than 104,000 hectares (256,990 acres) of freshly planted rice seedlings were also affected, with some 48,000 hectares (118,610 acres) in the districts of Ngeun, Xienghon, Phieng and Kaenthao sustaining notable damage, it said.

Additionally, crops such as sweet corn, sesame and job's tear fruit were affected on more than 8,000 hectares (19,770 acres) with some 3,800 hectares (9,390 acres) reported as damaged.

The report said farmers in the province only recently completed rice planting in some areas because other regions don't have enough irrigation water and they have been forced to wait for rain to do so.

It said the provincial Agriculture and Forestry Department is planning measures to limit the drought's effect and has also prepared seeds to support local farmers and replant damaged production areas, while local officials are repairing irrigation systems for rice and other crops.

Vanhdy Douangmaly, head of the Weather Forecasting and Aeronautical Meteorology Division of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, told RFA that the drought has lasted longer than previous years because of the influence of the El Niño weather pattern, which has led to heavy flooding in some parts of the world and a devastating lack of rain in others.

“The drought has taken place longer than usual, as El Niño has led to unseasonably little rain,” he said.

“However, over the next two weeks, rain will cover the majority of the country, according to the forecast. It will begin raining from the south to the center of the country, though it is not expected to rain in the north.”

Region affected

The lack of rainfall in Laos comes amid a wider drought affecting wider Southeast Asia, which has also forced farmers in Cambodia and Vietnam to abandon their rice paddies and seen the region’s main waterway, the Mekong River, drop to extremely low levels.

Earlier this week, Sivann Botum, secretary of state for Cambodia’s Ministry of Women’s Affairs and a member of the National Committee for Disaster Management, told RFA that the severe drought will deepen poverty in the developing country.

One woman in Kampong Speu province in southern Cambodia said the drought has dried up many local water resources that people there rely upon, with the delay of the beginning of the rainy season, which lasts from the end of May through the first half of October.

The season provides about three-quarters of Cambodia’s annual rainfall, and daily rain is common during its peak between July and September.

And in Vietnam, some are calling the drought the worst to hit the country in two decades.

The lack of rainfall has affected all five provinces in Vietnam’s Central Highlands—a region that produces 60 percent of the country’s coffee—devastating the livelihoods of millions of coffee farmers.

In June, eighteen months after the start of the drought, the central coastal province of Ninh Thuan declared a state of emergency for the first time in its history, becoming the first province to do so, according to the official Vietnam News Service.

And hundreds of thousands of hectares of rice fields in coastal areas in the Mekong Delta region of the country have been badly affected by the deep intrusion of seawater into rivers and canals due to the current drought, according to a recent report by the official Tuoi Tre news agency.

Despite the lack of rain, the monsoon season is due to arrive in much of Southeast Asia in coming weeks, and meteorologists have warned that sudden deluges could lead to severe flooding and landslides.

Reported by RFA’s Lao Service. Translated by Ounkeo Souksavanh. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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