A drought in the Mekong river region of Southeast Asia that has lasted since the beginning of this year has continued well into what should be the rainy season in the region.
Water levels are even lower than in 2016, which has been called the region's worst drought in a century. The agriculture and fishing industries in communities situated near the banks of the river are in a dire situation, as the late-May and early-June monsoons never materialized to provide relief from the dry season.
Meanwhile upstream dams like China’s Jinghong dam and Laos’ Xayaburi dam are holding back water for their own purposes, exacerbating the problem for everyone downstream.
RFA’s Vietnamese Service interviewed Brian Eyler, the Southeast Asia Program Director for the Stimson Center, to discuss the exact causes of the drought and how the dams affect the ecology of the Mekong region. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
RFA: According to a recent statement by the Mekong Freedom Network, [a civic group that studies the impacts of dams constructed along the Mekong river], China’s eight dams on the Mekong are the main cause of the extremely low water levels. What was your reaction to their report?
Eyler: I saw this announcement about eight dams in China, and China’s portion of the upper Mekong were causing the drought and I quickly wanted to act and rectify some of the data. Right now there is this very devastating drought happening in the Mekong. It’s a result of many contributing factors coming together in kind of a perfect storm.
I work on promoting smarter development alternatives for the Mekong as well as trying to set the record straight with those who are reporting in the media as well as those who are acting on this issue.
One of my first reactions was, [thinking] there are [actually] 11 dams in China, on China’s portion of the upper Mekong that have been completed. So everyone needs to update their maps and their information.
Those dams collectively could store more than 47 billion cubic meters of water. Now we’re in a period of drought, so they’re not storing that much, they’re storing something less than that, but regardless, they’re storing a lot of water that could be contributing to the downstream.
But there are many other factors that are contributing to this devastating drought in the Mekong and I hope we can talk about those.
RFA: In your recent report to the media, you stated that on the 19th of July this year, it’s very likely that the water level on the Mekong river reached its lowest level in the past century.
The dams in China were built many years ago and have been in continuous operation since then. Why is this a sudden problem now? Are there any other factors besides the dams in China that are causing the drought?
Eyler: So I did a quick analysis looking at satellite images from the low point of the worst drought in a century, which was in April of 2016 and comparing that to July 19, this year, which was the day I did the analysis.
[I] saw that the water level in the Golden Triangle [Southeast Asia] was lower on July 19 than it was at the lowest point of the century drought in 2016, which suggests that this could be very likely the lowest point the river has experienced in the last hundred years, and it might even extend farther than that.
The contributing factors are, in order of impact, [first], there’s an El Niño weather effect that has affected the region in terms of rainfall for the dry season and into this monsoon season. So it’s important to know that in May and June of each year, the Mekong system shifts from a dry season of extreme dry to extreme wet, and there’s a transition that happens. This El Niño factor is lengthening the dry season.
[Second], climate change is impacting the length of the rainy season, so climate change analysts predict that the monsoon season will shrink and be shorter each year. We’re seeing that this year. To what effect is climate change impacting this? More studies need to be done.
[Third], there are dams that are holding back water. The Xayaburi dam, which is upstream from Vientiane, in northern Laos is testing operations, and this is impacting flow downstream, certainly contributing to some extent on this low water level.
[Fourth,] there are China’s major dams. The one to look at is the most downstream dam, the Jinghong dam. It might not matter what’s happening above that. What that dam is doing, in releasing water, will impact downstream flows.
And then finally, there are over 60 dams that are completed in Laos on tributaries of the Mekong. Sixty! And more than 60 under construction. All of these impact flow.
So these factors come together right now in a perfect storm to deliver this devastating and very impactful drought. And communities, particularly communities that live alongside the Mekong downstream in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam are those that are being affected the most.
RFA: Global warming, and weather changes are inevitable factors, but people are still talking about the dams in China. How do the dams in China affect the ecosystem of the Mekong river, especially in regards to the lives of the people living near the river?
Eyler: Let’s talk a bit about the dams in China, and then let’s talk about just dams in general. China’s dams are some of the largest in the world, and they hold back huge amounts of water.
The dams downstream in Laos, like the Xayaburi dam are also very large. The ones on the tributaries tend to be smaller.
So, the impacts of these larger dams will have larger impacts if they are not managed properly. Now, what has happened in the last few weeks is that the Jinghong dam has not released water, or has released less water than it normally does during the monsoon season. And this is likely because the needs of that dam are prioritized over the needs of everyone downstream. That dam has to turn a profit and sell electricity to most likely, the communities and the cities around it.
This is one of the most heavily populated areas of the Mekong. There’s a city there in China that has about 600,000 to 800,000 people in it, and it’s growing very fast. So the needs of that dam trump the needs of [people downstream], which is very unfortunate.
The same can be said for all the other dams downstream. And in a period of drought, there’s less water available. So these dams need to make good on their obligations to make electricity. If they don’t then they lose money.
Each of those dam operators is going to act in a way that does not consider the needs of downstream reaches of the river, which means they’re going to store water. Consider the cumulative impacts of all of that, of the Jinghong dam holding water back, of the Xayaburi dam testing operations right now, which also holds water back, and then all these others, 60 plus dams in Laos, and then the one dam in Cambodia, as well as dams in the upstream portions of Vietnam in the central highlands and in Thailand.
These things cumulatively added together have a major impact on downstream flow and they’re really exacerbating problems during times of drought.
RFA: In 2016 Vietnam faced its worst drought in years. How bad will it be this year and in upcoming years for Vietnam, amid the dams in neighboring China, Laos, Cambodia, especially with Beijing continuing to support dam construction projects?
Eyler: I think a lot more study needs to be done on this particular event to determine whether this drought is event driven by, say, El Niño weather patterns plus the impacts of Xayaburi testing and Jinghong holding back water, or, [if this] is more of a long-term trend that’s going to play out.
We’re moving into the monsoon season. Actually the monsoon season in the Mekong should have started at the end of May and early June and this really hasn’t set in yet, and this is very concerning. The pulse, the annual pulse, of all the rainwater flowing down through the Mekong system has not happened yet.
This week last year, there was a dam burst. One of the contributing factors to that dam burst in southern Laos was a major tropical storm that sent a lot of water into the reservoir. There are other factors, probably more important factors that caused that dam burst, but at this time last year there was too much water in the system. The data shows us this.
So we have these wide swings from year to year. It’s very hard to determine what the impacts are. No one knows what the impacts will be. The Mekong river commission does studies on, let’s say, what the impacts of the Mekong mainstream dams will be, plus a handful of tributary dams, but we don’t’ know how many dams will be built in the end.
There are plans for 500 dams that could be built. Five-hundred! It’s an incredible number of dams being built in the Mekong basin. No one knows what their impacts will be, and that’s a very scary proposition.
RFA: Do you think like Vietnam can work to mitigate the negative effects of Chinese hydroelectric dams?
Eyler: There’s very little that Vietnam domestically can do. The [Mekong] delta, being a very important agricultural production zone for Vietnam, could be managed in a way where more water is stored from the monsoon season into the dry season, and this would be a way to mitigate what’s happening upstream.
Again, China’s got big dams on the upstream of the Mekong, but Laos will build 200 to 300 dams if nothing changes moving into the future. Vietnam needs to engage with Laos as well on this, needs to engage with China, needs to engage with Cambodia, on promoting, [first], alternatives that can shift the future of power generation buildout from hydropower to other forms of energy generation.
[Next, Vietnam must] work with the countries upstream to say things like, “This is a period of weather induced drought. Your dams need to be releasing water to emulate the natural flow of the river, not holding water back.”
That’s the type of message that Vietnam and all the downstream countries need to be giving to upstream dam operators regardless of where they are.
RFA: China has launched the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Mechanism in order to, as they said, mitigate issues while supporting the sustainable development of the region. Do you think it will work?
Eyler: No. Not yet. It could, [but] what’s interesting with this Lancang Mekong Cooperation Mechanism (LMC) is that the discourse of the LMC, started out very hydropower focused. This was basically business as usual for China. China looks to build dams downstream to meet power generation and electricity demand needs.
But that changed over the last few years and I think it changed to a consultative approach with downstream countries. We see many more stakeholders going from lower Mekong countries to China to engage in public exchanges as well as scientific exchanges. So there is some consultation going there and you have to give the LMC in China credit for that.
But also the discourse has changed to one of promoting multiple uses of water, which is more of China’s way of managing its own rivers, particularly those that are close to the coasts. Water for irrigation, water for flood control, water for drought relief, and for hydropower production and for other uses.
So that’s now being translated downstream. We see this in the news. China talks about drought relief and flood reduction.
In the context of this drought, then China needs to put its money where its mouth is and actually release some water to relieve the drought. But that type of drought relief should be done in a way that naturally emulates the flow of the river going into the monsoon season. China’s Jinghong dam has the ability to do that, and it hasn’t. It just hasn’t done that to date.
[Instead] it shocks the system. So overnight, communities in the Golden Triangle in Vietnam will see a massive rise in the river. Then the releases will stop and it goes down again. No one can cope and adapt to that, those that live and draw resources from the river.
They pay every time this happens. Millions of dollars in lost equipment, lost animals, lost agricultural production, and there’s a biodiversity loss attached to this as well.
My other concern about the LMC is that they’re talking about flood reduction. The Mekong doesn’t need flood reduction. The Mekong is a mighty system whose floods will provide for tens of millions of people, will provide fish and agricultural production. So China is talking about reducing floods? That’s very dangerous.
RFA: You mean the floods can fix the problem itself? That’s why you call it the 'mighty Mekong'.
Eyler: Yes the floods can fix the problems.
RFA: What did you think about the role of the United States, Japan and other countries as well as international organizations to cope with the soon-to-be-built dams? You said we should expect hundreds of them.
Eyler: I think there’s a role for Western development partners in promoting a sustainable pathway and I think we’re actually moving into a phase where Western development partners are going to play a more pragmatic role in this manner, particularly the United States.
If you take Vietnam, for example, resolution 120, from 2017, Prime Minister Phuc talked about restoring the natural ecosystem properties of the Mekong delta, to let the river do the work. This is baked-in to resolution 120, which looks to be the right set of policies for the Mekong delta.
There’s other things, like promoting a smart agricultural transition, promoting agribusiness and all these things. These are opportunities and this is a policy set that the U.S. can help work on, the U.K., Australia, Japan, EU, many countries can assist with this, and certainly Vietnam is calling for assistance to help implement this.
This is one [issue] that we all need to work together on to make [it] work for the future. But resolution 120 won’t work if all these upstream impacts are still coming down to the Mekong delta.
[But even] then there [would] still [be] a role for these Western development partners – to promote more renewable energy [such as] solar, wind, biomass, [and] other forms of power generation upstream so that these dams just don’t happen in the future.
And then [the partners could] also work with the countries to better manage [the dams].
Reported by RFA's Vietnamese Service.