Mekong thirst hard to quench

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Residents in the Mekong Delta are suffering as the river's water level hits record low 

Farmer Dang Roi stands next to his family's salt water-hit rice field (R) in Ben Tre Province's Que Dien Commune in the Mekong Delta

Farmers and fishermen in the Mekong Delta have been hit hard by a poor rainy season the river has sunk to a record low.

Experts worry that these problems are the early symptoms of a coming crisis - one spurred by unsustainable development and climate change.

The Asian Development Bank is holding a conference this week to discuss a dwindling fresh water supply on the continent and possible solutions to the potential crisis.

Vietnamese scientists estimated that the Mekong River would fail to irrigate around 500,000 hectares of rice fields in the delta during the winter-spring season. Meanwhile, another 100,000 hectares will suffer intrusion from salt water.

Dr. To Van Truong, former director of the Southern Irrigation Planning Institute, blamed the situation on deleterious upstream development.

"Construction of upstream hydropower dams, the destruction of vegetation cover via deforestation and the increased use of water for irrigation have seriously lowered the river flow," he said.

Statistics from Can Tho University's Delta Research and Global Observation Network showed the Mekong River's annual high water mark has drastically fallen from 4.9 meters to 2.11 meters at a monitor station in An Giang Province.

The Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia and the world's most valuable inland fishery. More than 60 million people rely on it for their livelihoods. The 4,000-km river begins in the Tibetan plateau and flows through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the East Sea.

Cross-border tensions

At a conference held in Manila from October 11 to 15, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) warned that dwindling freshwater supplies could raise cross-border tensions over shared water resources.

The "Water: Crisis and Choices - ADB and Partners Conference 2010" has drawn over 600 water experts from international governments, think tanks and non-profit organizations to examine water challenges and the solutions needed to overcome them.

"Water stocks in many Asian countries are dwindling in a critical state due to urbanization, industrialization and competing demands for water for energy," the ADB said in a press release issued on Tuesday (October 12).

"By 2030, estimates suggest there will be 40 percent between water supplies and demand in the region, with food production under threat and rising cross-border tensions over shared water resources in river basins," it said.

The ADB attributed the coming problems to inefficient and wasteful water use. Irrigated agriculture, which draws most of Asia's freshwater, is notoriously inefficient. Since 1990, efficiency has improved on an average of one percent annually, it said.

"Asia's water world has gone past its tipping point. The challenge now is to urgently halt, if not reverse, the decline in freshwater availability," said Arjun Thapan, ADB's Special Senior Advisor (Infrastructure and Water) who called the conference together.

"Asia needs to aggressively adopt measures that dramatically improve water use efficiencies and safeguard the region's food and energy security."

Around 80 percent of Asia's water is used to irrigate crops, but much of it is used inefficiently, while many of the region's most water-stressed countries lose large volumes of treated water through leakages in urban water supply systems.

"It is, indeed, a grim picture, and one not likely to get much better unless we radically alter our ways of managing accessible freshwater resources. Our choices are, in fact, very limited," Thapan said.

The new oil

A Reuters analysis on October 11 called water "the new oil" that could ignite conflicts over water rights.

China's plans for more dams on the Mekong and on other major rivers that tumble down from the Tibetan plateau already have its southern neighbors on edge, the newswire said.

Dr. Truong, said that hydropower dams in China have significantly lowered the water level in the Mekong region, impacting on downstream riparian communities.

"China is constructing eight dams upstream in Yunnan Province. By early 2010, three dams were completed and began their operations," he said, adding that several others will be completed in the coming years.

Meanwhile, the construction of another twelve dams on the Mekong in Laos, Thailand and Cambodia are under consideration. The projects have drawn wide criticism from experts who have insisted that the projects will lead to dire environmental damage.

According to Dr. Le Anh Tuan of the Delta Research and Global Observation Network, the Mekong River's water levels are at a record low in many sections in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, despite the ongoing rainy season.

"No more floods means no silt to enrich the ecosystem," he told Thanh Nien. "This has lead to dire consequences for the environment and the residents in the Mekong Delta."

An Giang Province authorities estimated the river's seasonal floods generate around VND1.5 trillion (US$76.9 million) through fishing, fisheries, cultivation and related services. Together, these industries provide jobs for about 650,000 laborers.

"A year without floods means many farmers will suffer hardships. Many residents have escaped poverty thanks to making profits in flood season," said Nguyen Minh Nhi, former chairman of An Giang Province People's Committee, the provincial government.

Dr. Tuan said the river's low flow has permitted sea water to intrude inland in many provinces, damaging rice cultivation and fish farming.

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