By Tran Van Minh and Stephen Wright, AP
HANOI, Vietnam — As China opened one of its six dams on the upper Mekong River last month to help parched Southeast Asian countries down river cope with a record drought, it was hailed as benevolent water diplomacy.
But to critics of hydroelectric dams built on the Mekong over the concerns of governments and activists, it was the self-serving act of a country that, along with hydropower-exporting Laos, has helped worsen the region’s water and environmental problems.
Much of Southeast Asia is suffering its worst drought in 20 or more years. Tens of millions of people in the region are affected by the low level of the Mekong, a rice-bowl-sustaining river system that flows into Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Fresh water is running short for hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam and Cambodia, and reduced water for irrigation has hurt agriculture, particularly rice growing in Thailand, where land under cultivation is being cut significantly this year.
Vietnam estimates that 400,000 hectares have been affected by saltwater intrusion, with some 166,000 hectares rendered infertile. The affected land accounts for nearly 10 percent of the country’s paddy cultivation area in the Mekong Delta, its main rice-growing region.
The water level in the Tonle Sap river as it passes the royal palace in Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, has fallen to a 50-year low.
Fingers are mainly pointed at the El Nino climate phenomenon, which produces drier and hotter-than-usual weather globally. But environmentalists and some officials say the situation is worsened by the 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream built over the past two decades, at least partly because they reduce rainy-season flooding and trap sediments, making the downstream delta more vulnerable to seawater intrusion.
“I’ve lost all my investment. My family was left with nothing,” said Thach Tai, a farmer from Ngoc Bien village in the southern Vietnamese province of Tra Vinh, as he surveyed his 2,000 square meters of dead, dry paddies.
“I don’t know what to do. And there’s nothing I can do to help with my rice paddies.”
Tai said his 70-year-old father and other elderly people in the village of more than 180 families had never witnessed such drought and salination.
The current El Nino is one of the strongest climate events in the past 60 years “that is not over yet,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director-general at the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization. It is the main factor in the drought, but “dams along the Mekong can and certainly do cause some problems,” she said.