Water Festival Without Water

Laos celebrates the New Year holiday amid drought on the Mekong.

2012-04-10
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luang-prabang-water-festival-305 Luang Prabang residents soak and splash each other during the Water Festival, April 15, 2010.
RFA

Water Festival celebrations to usher in the Lao New Year have begun, but festivities have been marred by severe water and power shortages, officials say.

As part of the national “Visit Laos Year 2012” campaign, the government has planned bigger celebrations for this year’s Water Festival, the country’s biggest holiday, when people splash each other with water and douse Buddhist statues in ritual washings.

The biggest festivities take place in northern Laos’s Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the country’s largest international tourist attraction, where the water mayhem began on Monday.

But due to drought and low levels on the Mekong River in recent months, the city’s water shortages are putting a damper on the festivities, which usually fall at the start of the wet season.

Laos relies on the Mekong and its tributaries as key resources for water as well as electricity. More than 80 percent of Laos lies within the Mekong River basin, providing the country with the highest per-capita water allocation in the region.

With intermittent water and electricity supply, residents have begun collecting water in the early morning and storing it up for later.

"We don't have enough running water; people have to wait until 10:00 p.m. for water. As soon as the water comes, it's gone because everybody collects it at the same time,” an official from the Agriculture and Forest Ministry said.

“People are using tanks to collect water,” he added.

Vientiane

Festivities run longer in Luang Prabangthe capital of the historical Lao kingdombut national celebrations run from April 13 to 15 every year.

Officials are worried that water and electricity shortages in other cities will intensify on Friday, when people begin soaking each other in the streets.

Vientiane, Laos’s capital and largest city, is also facing water shortages and the government has warned residents to conserve water and store up on rainwater.

Vientiane’s water supply is drawn from the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s main waterway, but parts of the river in Laos are so dry this year that the city can’t provide enough water, the official said.

Dry spell

Last month, low water levels in Khammouane province hindered local trade with Thailand along the Hinboun River, a branch of the Mekong.

The Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body that coordinates management of the river, said in its monitoring report this week that current water levels on the river in most of Laos are similar to those during the dry season in other years.

In rare criticism, in March a Lao government expert blamed upriver dams in China for the latest drop in levels, 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 part of the Mekong River are causing water levels to decline in the downstream areas in central Laos, including the Vientiane provincial area, the water resources expert at the Lao Ministry of Natural Resources told RFA.

He said that some parts of the river had dried up so much that one can now cross the river on 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.

Fifteen hydropower dams are also being planned by Southeast Asian nations along the key regional artery.

Laos, which has said it hopes to become “the battery of Asia,” has around 70 hydropower dams planned, but placed a moratorium on its biggest dam, the Xayaburi, in December after Mekong River Commission talks.

Reported by RFA's Lao Service. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.

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