As China opened one of its six dams on the upper Mekong River in March to help parched Southeast Asian countries down river cope with a record drought, it was hailed as benevolent water diplomacy.
But to critics of hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong over the concerns of governments and activists, it was the self-serving act of a country that, along with hydropower-exporting Laos, has helped worsen the region’s water and environmental problems.
Much of Southeast Asia is suffering its worst drought in 20 or more years. Tens of millions of people in the region are affected by the low level of the Mekong, a rice-bowl-sustaining river system that flows into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Fresh water is running short for hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia, and reduced water for irrigation has hurt agriculture, particularly rice growing in Thailand, where land under cultivation is being cut significantly this year.
Vietnam estimates that 400,000 hectares (1,500 square miles) have been affected by salt water intrusion, with some 166,000 hectares (640 square miles) rendered infertile. The affected land accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country’s paddy cultivation area in the Mekong Delta, its main rice-growing region.
The water level in the Tonle Sap river as it passes the royal palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has fallen to a 50-year low.
Fingers are mainly pointed at the El Nino climate phenomenon, which produces drier and hotter-than-usual weather globally. But environmentalists and some officials say the situation is worsened by the 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream built over the past two decades, at least partly because they reduce rainy-season flooding and trap sediments, making the downstream delta more vulnerable to seawater intrusion. Read More