Drought in the Mekong River Basin

The last week has seen an eruption of chatter and concern over the low flows in the Mekong River, and the impacts on downstream Riparian nations, specifically Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

First and foremost, the current drought conditions are not isolated to the Mekong Basin. The Southwestern Chinese provinces of Guizhou and Yunnan have experienced unprecedented drought (as I have been following on this blog). The drought has led to widespread crop-failure, and subsequent famine risk.   I find the amount of blame being placed on China surprising and perhaps inappropriate.  Admittedly, China’s dams are likely holding some of the water back that would normally flow down the Mekong as some of the articles point out below.  The Chinese officials in these (and other) articles continue to reference their use of water in terms of the “average flow” of the Mekong, but given that current conditions are not “average” the abstraction from the river should be compared to actual, current Mekong flow.

It is very promising to hear and read that the MRC is successfully convening a summit of all six riparians, something which has not happened for over a decade.  Certainly, the downstream riparians will need China to be a part of a coordinated Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) plan.  In a water scarce future, with increasing demands for agriculture, fisheries, electricity and transport, the downstream riparians comprising the current MRC members  .  This basin may serve as interesting basin in which downstream riparians will seek other key points of leverage with which to influence China’s hydrologic policy, possibly involving other regional or global actors to help provide pressure for China to cooperate.

A particular glitch in the current web-coverage of the Mekong situation is the number of Chinese dams on the Lancang, or upper Mekong River. Above, you can see a graphic originally provided by International Rivers. I have edited the colors used to indicate the dams (changing the three colors used to denote different categories of construction status from dark blue, black and white, to yellow, red and green). I also edited the inset map to clarify the location of this part of the Mekong.

Hopefully, this map will help to provide some clarity as Chinese hydroelectric projects move forward.

Here is a collection of articles from the region and beyond examining the current situation in the Mekong River basin:
“… the filling of the Xiaowan dam’s reservoir happens to coincide with the onset of the current drought and the subsequent drop in downstream flows.”  For whom the mighty Mekong flows, Bangkok Post, March 31

“…poverty in the GMS (Greater Mekong Subregion) remains high, with average GDP per capita of less than $2 per day.” Mekong countries working hard by slowly to lift regionBangkok Post, March 31

“…the growing crisis has spurred a diplomatic discussion and the first summit meeting of the six riparians in the 15-year history of the Mekong Commission.” The coming crisis over the Mekong — unconstrained development, natural droughts, and climate change, SF Gate, April 3

“Song said the runoff volume of Lancang River accounts for only 13.5 percent of that of the Mekong River.  The runoff of Mekong River mainly comes from the middle-and-lower Mekong basin, amounting to 86.5 percent.” China to boost co-op with downstream Mekong countries, China Daily, April 4

Chinese officials dismissed concerns that their waterwords had affected downstream countries… “At present, we only use a tiny part of the average flow of the Lancang…” China Dam Plans raise Mekong fears, Financial Times, March 31
NOTE:  I would like to point out that the Financial Times article seems somewhat misleading, because it gives the impression that the drought hit areas of SW China, including Yunnan and Guizhou, are hydrologically linked to the Mekong River basin.  Although these regions are experiencing the same climatological drought conditions, they are not hydrologically linked since they are within separate watersheds.

NPR’s Mekong Series


Recently NPR’s Michael Sullivan and photographer Christopher Brown traveled from the source of the Mekong River in China to its outlet in the South China Sea.
They split up the journey based on the countries the river passes through, going from China, to Myanmar, to Laos & Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam.
The five articles are an excellent overview of the Mekong River and cultures, history, and economic transitions that it passes through.  There are also many interesting themes that I have pulled out.
It is clear that China is expanding its regional hold through modern economic colonialism in new Tibetan towns, vice-industries (prostitution, casinos, drugs) in Myanmar, Laotian construction contracts, and acquisition of Thai rice crops.
Some parts of the Mekong are welcoming this expansion of influence, while others are more wary.  The economic benefits of Chinese wealth spreading out positively effect the expansion of tourism, gambling, and demand for resources such as timber and food (both from farm and fish).  However, the externalities of these activities, including untreated sewage and trash dumped into the river from expanding cities, and the loss of resource wealth carried north on barges to China.
These issues will inevitably influence the stance of the Mekong River Commission which I suggest is a useful organization for uniting the downstream riparians to have a dialogue with China.


The message of population pressure is clear throughout this article, from the expansion of Han Chinese towns into the Mekong headwaters of the Tibetan Plateau, to Cambodian Tonle Sap fisherman who are overfishing juvenile fish before they spawn.
The consequences of population pressure are also clearly evident: rapidly depleting fisheries, disease burden from HIV/AIDS, inadequate water resources for farming, and pollution of the river.
These issues are only likely to expand as all of these nations are growing, and China has even begun to export its own population, both officially and unofficially, to satellite cities throughout the downstream Riparians

It seems evident that throughout the basin, food security is currently, and will grow to be, a major basin-wide issue.  China is currently the biggest, and richest, game in town.  And it is a large purchaser of food and fish from many of the downstream countries.

As the section on improvements in river transport infrastructure suggest, there is a strong likelihood that China’s appetite (literally) will cause the Mekong’s water resources to flow upstream back to China, in the form of fish, rice, and other food crops.
It remains to be seen whether these dynamics will be sustainable in the long-run, with downstream farmers and fisherman increasingly exporting crops to China, rather than selling to local, domestic markets.
It should be noted that although this article does not discuss the current drought, the 2010 drought has been covered in many articles, including this recent piece on the Mekong River running dry, and my recent post.  With the increased climate variability induced by climate change, the historical range of variability may not necessarily be relied upon into the future.
This is an excellent snap shot of the current economic, cultural, and resource situation throughout the basin.  What it lacks in facts and figures, it makes up for in useful anecdotes that add necessary detail and texture to a complex basin.