Summer 2010

Laos Hit Hard by Mekong’s Falling Water Levels

The Mekong River, the longest in Southeast Asia, is at its lowest reported water level in 20 years. The river runs through six countries – China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam – but the highest percentage (35 percent) of the river’s overall water flow runs through Laos.

Downtown Vientiane has experienced reduced water pressure and even the stoppage of water supply; boats are beached for the first time in memory; and the hospitals are without water supply at peak hours.

The only landlocked country in Southeast Asia and one of the world’s least developed countries, Laos relies on the Mekong River as a crucial resource for much more than water. The nation’s economy, food supply, transportation routes, electricity, and more depend significantly on the river.

Laos has the largest percentage of the Mekong’s water but the critical source of the river, the Mekong headwaters, is located in China. At present, there is debate and disagreement over the cause of the low water levels. Many downstream river users point fingers at China’s three upstream dams on the Mekong, but drought and climate change are believed to be major factors, as well.

As the country that holds the largest percentage of the Mekong River, Laos' industries such as fishing, have been dramatically affected by current low water levels.

Currently, there is very little if any baseline data on the health of river systems in Laos, and there are limited resources for monitoring water quality. Without this information, it is impossible to measure environmental changes over time or to formulate effective plans to address degrading and depleting water resources.

The Asia Foundation is working to improve this situation throughout the region. In Vang Vieng, a small but growing port town in Laos, the Foundation spearheaded a community-based water quality monitoring program. In the coming months, with a recently expanded commitment to our environment programming, the Foundation will continue working with local groups to further develop programs to positively impact the future of water quality in Laos.