China releases water from Mekong dams, easing Southeast Asia drought

04 April 2016
China releases water from Mekong dams, easing Southeast Asia drought
Many areas of Southeast Asia including Myanmar are suffering from drought. Here Cambodian fishermen work on the Mekong. Photo: EPA

Southeast Asian countries have voiced relief that China last week increased the flow of water on the upper Mekong River, offering some hope to combat record drought in down-river countries.
Mekong River activists have long warned that the threat of hydroelectric dams built in China on the upper Mekong pose a danger to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, which depend on the river’s resource.
Southeast Asia is experiencing its worst drought in decades and water in the world’s third largest river had become scare both as drinking water and as a source to sustain agriculture crops.
Rice crops have been cut back in Thailand and other countries, particularly Vietnam, because of low water levels. Vietnam estimated that 400,000 hectares (1,500 square miles) have been affected by saltwater intrusion, with some 166,000 hectares (640 square miles) rendered infertile because of low water levels in the Mekong River delta, according to media reports.
The water level in the Tonle Sap basin near Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, fell to a 50-year low before the recent infusion of water.
Vietnam says the saltwater inflow into the Mekong Delta is unprecedented. In mid-March, it asked China to double the amount of water discharged from its Jinghong dam in Yunnan Province. China said the increased water flow is expected to continue until April 10.
The Chinese move was hailed as progress, but it underscored the power China now holds over the Mekong River basin environment.
Officials said Vietnam is so far downstream that only a small portion of the discharged water will reach it. 
Thailand, meanwhile, has added to regional tensions over the water resource by pumping large volumes of Mekong water to its drought-afflicted provinces.
Activists also said that many people who live along the Mekong were caught unaware that the river would suddenly rise and riverbank vegetable gardens were submerged and boats and fishing equipment swept away.