China has been struggling to deal with severe drought in its southwest, which has now gone on for six months. Despite efforts to create artificial rain and divert water resources, the situation remains challenging.
Worse yet, it’s not just China that is feeling the effects.
Southeast Asia is increasingly suffering, with over 10% of Thailand’s population in Thai drought-afflicted areas.
The sight of dry, cracked earth and sandy stretches of riverbed is now common in north-east Thailand and Laos down to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. China’s south-west Yunnan province, where its Mekong dams are located, is itself hurting from the drought.
“It is as if the river has gone mad,” said Niwat Roykaew of the Chiang Khong Conservation Group in northern Thailand.
Thus many both inside and outside China are beginning to re-question the effects of Chinese dam building on the flow of the Mekong River.
Peter Gleick, of the Pacific Institute, believes that we’ve only seen just the beginning of what will be a water crisis in the region.
Now, tensions are rising rapidly. Part of the problem is that China is building massive dams — as many as fifteen are planned — on its portion of the river for hydropower, water storage, and other uses, and they have refused to consult with the downstream nations about their projects. One of these Chinese dams, Xiowan, will be the world’s tallest ever, and its storage capacity will be larger than all other dams in Southeast Asia combined. These dams, along with projects in other countries, will massively alter the flows of the Mekong and threaten to destroy the ecosystems and the livelihoods for millions that depend on the river’s fisheries, flood season for irrigation, and other natural benefits.
Another part of the current problem is natural drought, perhaps worsened by climate change. In parts of the basin, the current drought is the worst of the century, but downstream nations are accusing upstream nations of contributing to the problem by holding back flows in some of the newly built dams. And there is growing concern that long-term climate changes will worsen the challenges the region faces.
Some are even wondering whether Southeast Asia is already being deprived of water due to Beijing stocking up, upstream, in order to battle China’s drought in the southwest.
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