The intricate politics of water

JINGHONG DAM

Rivers are commonly referred to as the lifeblood of nations. Rivers provide water but also sustain plant and animal life both on the banks and beneath the surface. Fish travel up rivers to spawn. Rivers feed the ground-water supply and help farmers keep an equilibrium between wet seasons and dry.

But who controls the river? What rights do various nations have when the river flows through their territory? One only has to look at the fate of the Colorado river in North America to see the downstream impact of up-stream actions. Thanks to the water consumption of California, the mighty Colorado no longer even makes it to Mexico where it flowed for thousands of years.

What if China did the same to the Mekong that flows through Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam?  Pictured above is the awesome Jinghong dam in China, built to generate much needed electricity. But this dam can effectively turn-off the Mekong tap, and limit the river flow – affecting water supply and fishing.

China is not alone here. Since 2006 some 11 dam sites have been nominated for hydro dam construction in Thailand, in Cambodia and – with 7 slated projects – in Laos. Everybody wants a slice of the resource.

In attempt to co-ordinate management of the Mekong resource, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand governments formed the Mekong River Commission with which Myanmar and China also confer. The MRC was formed in 1995, but this last year has faced serious internal problems through lack of funding and very divisive disagreements between the member nations. In particular, the dam projects planned by Laos threaten to seriously impact the fishing on the river – estimated by the MRC to be an annual 4.4 million tonne catch worth almost $17 billion. That represents around one eighth of the value of the world’s total freshwater fish catch.

Make no mistake, as China flexes its economic muscle in the region, downstream nations namely Cambodia and Vietnam have a lot to lose.  Decreased flows from the Mekong have already led to increasing salination – from salty sea water – of delta flats in Vietnam, rendering farms and local freshwater fisheries unsustainable.

This year, in the face of the SE Asian drought experienced by the Mekong nations, China scored a diplomatic coup by announcing to the MRC that the Jinghong dam would release a substantial flow of water to alleviate the drought situation downstream for one month to mid-April 2016.

It was a generous gesture, but it was also a reminder that what can be turned on can equally be turned off.  The Mekong River, more than ever before, is up for grabs.

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Drought Conditions hit Cambodia

BBC DROUGHT

In dealing with Cambodia since 2004 I’ve witnessed some extreme weather – notably flooding during monsoon season when roads, and our school grounds, turned briefly into lakes.  But in 12 years I’ve never seen anything as extreme, climate-wise, as the current drought which has taken parts of Cambodia to an emergency situation.

The drought is affecting Vietnam, Thailand and India also and has signs of turning into one of greatest weather-induced catastrophes of our times. Cambodia authorities declared drought conditions on March 29th, and since then 7 weeks have passed by with scant rain and scorching 40 degree temperatures.

Areas as disparate as Battambang in the west to Kandal Province, just South of Phnom Penh, where lakes and small rivers have dried up, to Stung Treng Province in the North, bordering Laos, have suffered.  Effects of the drought have included:

  • More than 300 farming buffalo have died
  • Tonnes of fish are dying in rivers and lakes – more than 60 tonnes of fish in the last week of April
  • Ground-water levels at unusually low levels after three relatively dry years
  • Wells drying up – an estimated 2.5 million people facing acute water shortages
  • Regions where schools are closing due to lack of water
  • Rising risk of disease due to increasingly poor water quality – including risks of cholera.

What is causing the drought? Meteorological conditions, namely a large El Nino weather system are directly to blame, but compounding the problem have been extremely poor environmental choices throughout S.E Asia including Cambodia. Massive losses of forestry have hurt normal rainfall patterns while dams have altered the normal aquatic patterns affecting fish life.

I’ve noted in previous blogs that Cambodia is particularly vulnerable to disasters – not just because of the disasters themselves, but also due to the poor disaster relief infrastructure. Farmers are currently losing everything – their crops, their animals and their meagre cash reserves, while there is little or no official welfare system established to assist them. According to the Guardian newspaper, some 19 provinces have been classified as in a serious condition requiring “immediate intervention” from the government which claims that “ministries, military units, NGOs, and everyone capable of helping” have been asked to step up. There has been publicity around delivery of bottled water to drought-hit villages, but little in the way of long-term solutions. And so far authorities have held off on making an appeal for international aid.

Right now everyone is praying for rain. May is supposed to be the commencement of the 3-month rainy season during which 75% of the annual rainfall normally occurs, but according to the Xin Hua news service the present conditions are forecast to last at least until July.

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