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Lack of Rain, Dams Hurt Livelihoods on Mekong River

A view of building the hydro-electric dam on the Mekong River in Xayaburi Province, Laos.
Lack of Rain, Dams Hurt Livelihoods of People on Mekong River
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The rainy season has begun in South and Southeast Asia. Farmers and fishermen are hopeful for wet weather after a long period of below normal rainfall. This year the Mekong River, Southeast Asia’s longest, has reached its lowest levels since record keeping began 60 years ago.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) studies the river and its use. It said rainfall over the Lower Mekong Basin was about 68 percent lower than in May 2019. The area includes parts of Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The situation worsened in June.

In its latest yearly report, the MRC said Lower Mekong countries needed to carefully study extreme weather events like droughts. “Flood and drought have hit our region hard lately and require stronger regional collaboration,” said MRC chief An Pich Hatda of Cambodia. He added that nations needed to have good quality and timely information on water sharing.

About 70 million people depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods and food. Among them is Man Ly He who has worked on the waters of the Mekong River for 40 years. He is upset by the building of dams in northern Cambodia, Laos and China.

“The reason why there is no fish is because of the new dams…which blocked the river flow and the water levels are going up and down three or four times a month depending on whether the dams are open or closed.

He noted, “This rainy season there has been no rain.”

Scientists have also linked the drought to the climate event known as the Indian Ocean Dipole, when the ocean experiences unusual temperature changes.

Colder than average surface temperatures in the eastern half of the Indian Ocean cause less rainfall in Southeast Asia. Scientists say the warming of the Earth intensifies the dipole.

The changing weather patterns are creating hardship and forcing people to change the way they live.

FILE - A dredging river barge, foreground, carries sand in the middle of Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
FILE - A dredging river barge, foreground, carries sand in the middle of Mekong River near Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Friday, Jan. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

“My family wakes up at 2:00 a.m. to buy fish at Chhaing Chamras fish market and then we sell it in the Kandal Market…I buy fish because there are no fish in the river,” said Yan, a former fisherman.

The drought has hurt the 850 kinds of fish in the Lower Mekong. Many, water animals in the area like the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the giant catfish, are endangered.

Record low water levels and falling fish catches, however, have failed to change the minds of Laotian officials in Vientiane. They continue to support hydro-electric dam building and hope to turn the land-locked country into the “battery of Asia.”

Laos recently announced it would move ahead with its third dam across the Mekong at Pak Beng. The project is to cost $1.88 billion. The huge $3.8 billion dam at Xayaburi went into full operation in last October.

There are about 140 dams planned for the mainstream of the Mekong and its connected waterways. Most are in China, but Chinese officials deny the dams are hurting water levels on the lower river.

A report by the research company Eyes on Earth Inc. found that China has been restricting the Mekong’s natural water flow. It has done this with many dams on the upper part of the river. However, China denies that its dams affect water levels.

Brian Eyler is an expert with the Stimson Centre, a research group. “When drought sets in, China effectively controls the flow of the river,” he said.

I’m Mario Ritter, Jr.

Luke Hunt reported this story for VOANEWS. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

drought –n. a long period of time during which there is very little or no rain

regional –n. of or about a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way

livelihood –n. a way of earning money in order to live

collaboration –n. the process of two or more groups working together towards a goal

pattern –n. something that happens in a regular and repeated way