Running Dry: Drought And Dams Deplete The Mighty Mekong

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Mekong dams

This year, the Mekong River is as dry as anyone can remember, threatening the livelihoods of tens of millions of people from the mountains of northern Laos to the delta region of southern Vietnam. A combination of lower than usual rainfall and runaway hydropower development is taking its toll on people who depend on its waters for irrigation and food.

To gauge the impact, Radio Free Asia and BenarNews spoke to villagers, farmers and fishermen on the banks of the river along the length of Laos, which makes a key central section of the river along its border with Thailand. We found them struggling to cope with the alarming drop in the water level and fearing that the situation will only worsen in the coming months.


Through northern Laos and Thailand, the Mekong is typically more narrow and faster-flowing than it is further south. But communities on either side of the border have felt the impact of drought. They’ve also experienced an abrupt variation when water has been held back inside China, as happened in early January when for several days, the Jinghong Dam reduced by one half the amount of water it releases into the Mekong.

At Luang Prabang in northern Laos, where the Mekong winds through steep-sided mountains that shadow the former royal capital of the country, the drought has been so severe that the mighty river has shrunk and land features in the river bed are much more prominent than before.

To the west of Luang Prabang, across the Thai border in Chiang Saen district, Chiang Rai province, the drought is affecting local fishermen, who have seen their catch plummet. One of the fishermen, named Chai, said the water level in mid-February was what it’s usually like after two more months of the dry season during the Songkran festival when both Thais and Lao celebrate the lunar New Year in mid-April.

“Now, water is not high. Some years ago, the water level was high over there (pointing to higher level). It’s very dry, dry like during Songkran season.”

Courtney Weatherby, a research analyst and expert on the Mekong at the Stimson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., said the main cause of the drought on the Mekong is low rainfall. That is a knock-on climatic effect of El Nino – an irregular warming of ocean water in the Pacific -- but it may also reflect a broader shift possibly associated with climate change where the rainy season starts later and is shorter, as happened in 2019.

The drop in the level of Mekong in the north is apparent from this satellite image comparison between last September, during the rainy season, and what it is in February, in the depth of the dry season, It shows the view above Tonpheuang district of Laos’ Bokeo province, opposite Chiang Saen district in Thailand’s Chiang Rai province.

But a paucity of rain is only part of the story. Another reason is the changes being wrought by hydropower development. “Both of these are key factors for the severity of this year’s drought,” Weatherby said.

Part of the problem is China’s upstream dams that can have a dramatic impact on the flow of the Mekong. They are unique for their capacity to store water, which could be used to good effect if water was released at times of shortage. But Weatherby said those dams are not being operated transparently and in coordination with countries downstream. Local communities have oftentimes been caught unawares by a sudden change in water level.

The most severe impact of the drought for local people – and this holds for people from the north of Laos to the south -- is in fisheries. Weatherby says the Mekong river system produces 2 million tons of fish every year, which is more than all the rivers and lakes of North America combined. People rely on those fish not just for food but for their livelihoods.


SATELLITE IMAGE: 26 Jan. 2020 at Meun district, Vientiane province in Laos, and opposite Chiang Khan district, Loei province, Thailand. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

Moving south to Vientiane Province in central Laos, the Mekong typically widens, but these days a wider expanse of the once-submerged river bed is exposed. Every dry season there is a dramatic change in the river’s appearance as monsoon rains recede, the land temperature rises and the volume of water decreases. But this year the change is more pronounced than usual. At Pakjan village in Meun district, which lies west of the Lao capital, people can walk on sand that would usually be covered with water.

PHOTOS from Meun district. Credit: Citizen journalist

PHOTOS from Sangkhom district, Nong Khai province, Thailand, opposite Meun district in Laos. Credit: Citizen journalist

The change between the rainy season and the current drought is most apparent when viewed from above by satellite. Here is an image comparision from the same location, comparing the river in September 2019 and February 2020.

Another factor impacting the flow of the river here has been the start of operations in October of the Xayaburi Dam – the first built by Laos on the mainstream of the Mekong. Proponents of the dam, with a maximum installed capacity of 1,285 megawatts of electricity to be sold to Thailand, say it won’t negatively impact the amount of water, nutrients and fish of communities downstream. But that is widely disputed.

Weatherby said the direct impact of the dam is difficult to gauge, but it is apparent. For communities in Thailand and Laos just downstream, “you can see the slow-down and then the rapid flood as the dam holds in and releases water for testing or operations,” she said.

In Chiang Khan district of Thailand’s northeastern Loei province, a villager says the river has been noticeably lower than usual since the end of last year. “Before, there was a lot of fish; this year, there is no fish at all,” the villager said.

A few dozen miles downstream at the Lao capital Vientiane, in parts the river is separated from the city by a vast expanse of sand. A satellite image shows Vientiane to the north of the river on Feb. 20, 2020, and northeastern Thailand’s Nong Khai province below it. In the top left of the image, Vientiane’s Wattay International Airport can be seen.

Photos taken from the ground in the vicinity show a desert-like terrain between the city and the river. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

A Lao irrigation official in the capital said that the river level fluctuates, rising for two or three days, then quickly dropping again. He said: “The Mekong River is now very dry; sand dunes and islands emerge. Water for farming, such as for growing dry season rice, is in short supply. The water used to be high in this area of our village; but since 2019, the river is very dry affecting our livelihood. Fishermen, passenger boats and water pumps must be relocated. Sometimes, the water rises for two-three days. When it goes down, it goes down quickly.”

The drop in fish catch has been so dramatic that at Santhong district in Vientiane prefecture, one fisherman has converted his nets into bird traps. Instead of trawling for fresh fish, he snares swallows with a contraption like a man-made Venus flytrap which he sets up on the exposed, sandy river bed in the early morning. He sells the birds to restaurants. He says they’re a popular dish in northern Laos, including in Xieng Khuang province.

On the Thai side of the border in Nong Khai province, villagers tread down exposed sandy banks, casting their nets for small fish in shallow lagoons. Small fishing boats are moored on the river bed, far from where they would be parked during the rainy season.


In southern Laos, the Mekong River eventually fans out into multiple channels into an area known as Sii Phan Don, or Four Thousand Islands, before it cascades into the famous Khone Phapheng Waterfalls. It then flows into Cambodia.

A bird’s eye view of the Mekong near the waterfalls shows an intricate web of channels, divided by islands and rock. It’s a fragile ecosystem – home to a tiny number of fresh water dolphins – that is under threat as never before.

In this satellite image taken Feb. 26, Khone Phapheng can be seen on the far right, and in the river channel to the left of it, the 260 megawatt Don Sahong dam, Laos’ second dam on the mainstream of the river. It began operations in November.

Khone Phapheng. Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

As of February, above the famous falls and not far from the dam, the river is shrunken and there’s a mosaic of bare rock on the exposed river bed. A tourist who recently visited and took the video below described the scene: “This most beautiful of waterfalls used to have enough water; but when it’s dry like this, the natural beauty is gone.” The tourist, who is Lao, declined to give his name in case he got into trouble with authorities.

“This most beautiful of waterfalls used to have enough water; but when it’s dry like this, the natural beauty is gone.”

To the north of Khone Phapheng, fishermen lament the lack of water. It’s a sentiment shared by Lao and Thai. “Before, when the water level was up, I was able to catch a lot of fish. Now nothing. I have to spend all day to catch some fish, very few, not enough to feed my family,” said a Lao fisherman from Khongteu in Saravane province’s Khongxedon district.

In Khongjiam district in Ubon Ratchathani on the Thai side of the border, a Thai fisherman says he’s never seen a drought like this one on the Mekong. He notes that it’s not even April yet when the dry season typically reaches its peak.

“Before, when the water level was up, I was able to catch a lot of fish. Now nothing. I have to spend all day to catch some fish, very few, not enough to feed my family.”

The drop in the level of the river in Khongxedon District is apparent in this comparision of two satellite images from last September and this February.

The Stimson Center expert, Weatherby, agrees with the fishermen that this year’s drought is of unprecedented intensity and that worse is likely to come before the rains provide respite – typically in June or July. “We are still not through the worst of the dry season,” Weatherby said. The longer-term outlook is no less worrying.

Weatherby says that if construction of dams continues apace, without strategic decision-making and coordination among governments about which projects will limit the impact on the river and people’s livelihoods, “the future of the Mekong is unfortunately bleak. It will not be the mighty Mekong River that it is now.”