Dam disaster on the way

Dam disaster on the way

It is now early on in the rainy season and the water volume on the Mekong River should have been high. But water levels on certain stretches of the international river, which runs from China through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, have reached their lowest points for 57 years.

While this year's dearth of rain partly explains the sharp drop in water volume, man-made factors -- dams built on the river in China and Laos -- must also take the blame for stopping water from flowing freely along the river.

The latest rapid decrease of water in the Mekong shows how the cascade dams on the river have exacerbated the impacts of the changing climate on people and the river's ecology. But worse is yet to come.

On Thursday, the inter-governmental Mekong River Commission (MRC) released a statement on its website to notify the public about the continuing "low flow" of the river since last month.

Set up as a cooperative body for the Thai, Lao, Cambodian and Vietnamese governments, the MRC has set up stations along certain stretches of the river to monitor water levels.

The MRC's June-July records show that the water levels from the upper reaches of the river in Chiang Saen district of Thailand's Chiang Rai province to Luang Prabang and Vientiane in Laos, and further down to Nong Khai in Thailand and Neak Luong in Cambodia, have reached record lows.

The lowest level was recorded in Chiang Saen this week which was 3.02 metres below its long-term average.

Meanwhile, the Jinghong hydropower dam in China has worsened the situation. From July 5-19, China cut the volume of water released by the dam in half. The retention of water was needed for the dam's "grid maintenance". This has worsened the drought and lowered water levels on its stretches in Laos and Thailand.

Then came another human factor this week. On Wednesday, Laos started its 72-hour trial run of the Xayaburi dam in the north of the country, which has caused either unusually high or low water levels along different stretches of the river.

The ongoing Mekong drought is alarming given that the lower Mekong river basin, which excludes China where the river is known as Lancang, is the lifeline for about 60 million people and home to diverse and abundant aquatic species.

The unprecedentedly low water levels, caused by both man-made factors and low rainfall, have affected people who use water from the river for agriculture and fisheries. The unusual fluctuations could also harm aquatic specifies, particularly fish that use the river as a seasonal migration route.

Environmentalist have criticised the 10 cascade dams in China that have altered the river's flow. But yet another cascade of 11 hydropower dams planned on the lower Mekong will only make the situation worse.

The Xayaburi dam is the first of 11 projects scheduled to start operations in October this year to produce electricity, mainly for sale to the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand. It remains to be seen how this dam's operation will further affect the river's flow and its ecology.

A 2011 MRC-commissioned study indicates that the 11 dams will bring about collective irreversible environmental impacts on navigation, fish passage, sediment, water quality and aquatic ecology in the Mekong River.

The Xayaburi dam's operation could mark the beginning of a catastrophe, and the Mekong governments and authorities should not sit idly by to watch this unfold.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

Email : anchaleek@bangkokpost.co.th

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