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The Mekong River Dying a Slow But Most Certain Death

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A confluence of drought and dams along the Mekong River has renewed concerns about the future of the 4,700-kilometer waterway. Upon which tens of millions of people depend for their livelihoods in China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

The number of dams impeding the Mekong’s flow are fastly multiplying. Drying up segments of the once fast-flowing river and leaving the region facing imminent drought. According to the Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body that aims to jointly manage the river’s water resources.

Laos’ Don Sahong, the newest of dozens of Mekong dam projects, began generating electricity close to the Laos-Cambodia border in November. Most of its generated power will be exported to Thailand and Cambodia.

A month earlier, the 1.3-gigawatt Xayaburi dam and hydropower project started to produce electricity in Laos. The self-proclaimed power-producing “battery of Asia.” Of which 35% of the Mekong flows Its electricity will be exported chiefly to Thailand.

“China’s operators of the Jinghong Dam and the Thai operators of the newly opened Xayaburi dam in Laos conducted operations that actually exacerbated the drought.” This is according to Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank.

“Those dams and more than 70 others now operational in Laos and China all contribute to deteriorating downstream conditions. Resulting in drought like conditions in the lower Mekong River basin.

Mekong Countries Demand for Electricity

A fisherman sitting on his boat as he pulls his net from the Mekong river in Wiang Kaen in the northern Thailand’s Chiang Rai

As economies such as Cambodia and Vietnam continue to expand even amid a global slowdown. They aim to catch up with wealthier neighbor Thailand and demand for electricity is growing fast.

Countries across Asia are building dozens of new coal-fired power plants to meet the rising demand of electricity. While at the same time sparking concerns about the impact on climate change of greater coal use.

But hydropower dams, although a cleaner alternative to coal, are also threatening environmental disaster. And regional governments, keen to maintain economic growth and spur development, appear determined to push ahead regardless of the adverse impacts.

Meanwhile, as both the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams commenced operations in the past month, the MRC has warned of “severe to extreme drought” It expects “to hit countries in the lower Mekong basin from now until January 2020.”

Critics are pointing at China’s ever-growing number of dams on the upper reaches of the Mekong as the main culprit.

Chinese dams have more control leverage over how the water flows and how much it flows downstream.

hitinan Pongsudhirak of Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University says China’s dams are far larger.  The Mekong river is under sever stress, imposed mainly by dam-building.

In mid-November, the MRC put the Mekong River’s water levels at their lowest in 60 years; other estimates suggest that water levels have dropped to their lowest level in a century.

Source: Asia Times

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