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World Water Day: Laos Hardest Hit by Mekong’s Falling Water Levels

March 17, 2010

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. The dramatic effects of the low water level here are palpable. In past weeks, downtown Vientiane businesses and homes have experienced reduced water pressure and even the stoppage of water supply during business hours. Boats in Luang Prabang and northern Laos that daily ferry tourists and cargo along the river and make up a significant part of the economy are currently beached for the first time in memory because it is too dangerous or just impossible to navigate the now-shallow waters. The hospitals in Vientiane are without water supply at peak hours and are busy brainstorming stop-gap solutions such as building larger holding tanks or drilling more artesian wells. The maternity and surgery wards are the biggest users of water, so they are the most affected. Recognizing the severity of the issue, the Prime Minister urged ministries and government offices last week to actively address the impact of this water shortage crisis.

As the country the holds the largest percentage of the Mekong River, Laos relies heavily on the river's steady flow for food supply, such as fishing pictured above as well as electricity and transportation.

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.

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. In recent years, hydropower has become one of Laos’ largest industries, and much of the farming – subsistence agriculture supports 80 percent of the population – and resulting food supply in Laos is affected by the health of the Mekong and its tributaries.

Although Laos is the least populated country of what are considered the six Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) countries, its geopolitical role in the subregion is significant: Laos is the only country to share a border with every one of the other Mekong countries, and Laos does not border any non-GMS countries. This means that relations over the shared river resource often hold even more significance for Laos. The GMS countries are its biggest trading partners, and travelling through them is the only way for Lao to access the sea. They are also all-important in terms of security, labor migration, and suppression of cross-border crime, including trafficking in persons, narcotics, and wildlife. Should disputes arise between any two GMS countries, Laos has a strong interest in maintaining good relations with them both.

Laos may have both the largest percentage of Mekong’s water and the largest percentage of the overall river basin, but the critical source of the river, the Mekong headwaters, is located in China. At present, there is debate and disagreement in the regional press over the cause of the low water levels. With little hard data made available to back the assertions on any side, speculation is rampant. Many downstream river users, including farmers and fishermen, point fingers at the upstream dams in China. China has three dams on the Mekong (or Lancang as the river is called in China), with one more to be completed in 2012. In Thailand, where citizens may have the most freedom to organize politically of all the GMS states, protests related to the Chinese dams and what protesters perceive as the resulting low waters are popping up around the country even amidst the larger government turmoil there. Residents of northern Thailand have announced plans to protest at the Chinese embassy in Bangkok against what they see as poor dam management that is in turn causing devastating effects on downstream users. Yet China’s stance, largely supported by neighboring GMS governments, is that drought and climate change are the culprit, not dams. Official announcements state that the low water levels should be blamed on natural causes.

According to the World Bank, 70 to 80 percent of the costs of climate change will be borne by developing countries. The rainy season will not start in Laos until June, which means that the current situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, and particularly so for those whose livelihoods depend directly on the river.

Gretchen Kunze is The Asia Foundation’s Country Director in Laos. She can be reached at gkunze@asiafound.org.

View all posts by Gretchen A. Kunze

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