Mekong and Rice

The Mekong River summit has recently convened leaders from all 6 riparian nations. This is a big step forward in terms of regional cooperation & dialogue, and should be viewed as an important event.

I have been curious how the demand for water breaks down within the basin, both by nation and activity. Specifically, relative to the whole flow of the river, which activities use the most water?

According to the Mekong River Commission (from a document they published in 2004), 80% of all water abstractions are agricultural in nature in the Lower Mekong Basin (comprised of Lao PDR, Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia). This suggests the potential for enormous water savings through the development of rice varieties that are tolerant to pests and drought.

The International Rice Research Institute have tremendous resources on rice research, and have an excellent section on Genetically Modified rice varieties.

The discussion of water security in the Mekong Basin, is implicitly tied to food security. It is in the best interests of the MRC nations to examine the largest water demand activity in the LMB, and focus their actions accordingly.

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.

The QANAT: March 22-28


World Water Day: Why business needs to worry “…industrial use of water will almost double by 2030. It currently accounts for 16% of total usage – more than half of it for energy production – and this will grow to a projected 22% by 2030 with China alone accounting for 40% of the additional demand.” BBC News, March 22

Delhi water table falling by 2m/yr “Delhi will soon push up the demand for water even further. That may lead to an unprecedented crisis, with no relief of surplus availability,” said NCRPB member secretary Noor Mohammad. ” Times of India, March 22

Polluted Water Killing, Sickening Millions “…3.7 percent of all deaths are attributed to water-related diseases, translating into millions of deaths. More than half of the world’s hospital beds are filled by people suffering from water-related illnesses, it said.” NY Times, March 22, 2010

Besieged Gaza denied water “The head of Gaza’s water authority says he has plans and the means to import water from other countries until self-dependency is reached, but Israel’s blockade is the only thing in the way.” Al Jazeera, March 22

With War And Neglect, Afghans Face Water Shortage “Only 1.5 million hectares of agricultural land were irrigated in 2002 and an additional 300,000 hectares rehabilitated since — less than half the area irrigated in 1979, when the war began — said the East West Institute think tank in a report last year.” March 24, 2010

Hillary douses Pak’s ire on water; says it’s a bilateral issue “We’re well aware that there is a 50-year-old agreement between Pakistan and India concerning water,” Clinton told a Pakistani interviewer” Times of India, March 24

Although global media has been rather light on the drought in China, the China Daily news website has consistently had excellent coverage. Here is a list of headlines & links:

March 24
Drought paralyzes power supply

Flowers fail to bloom as drought worsens

18M emergency loans for drough-hit Yunnan

March 25
Safe water project fails to quench countryside thirst

Drought affects China’s largest waterfall

Villagers pleading for road to water

China drills more wells, seeds clouds amid drought

Drought challenges grain harvest: Premier

March 26
Yunan’s flower industry wilting

Livelihoods suffer without water

Drought causes severe forest losses in China

Drought-stricken southwest China moves to curb food hikes

HK offers aid to drought victims in mainland

Armed forces help with drought relief in SW China

Climate change threatens Qinghai-Tibet plateau

Artificial rain to ease drought in SW China

China drought to test policymakers on inflation management

March 27
Drought may force villagers to leave homes

Living life by the bucketful

China starts building canal to replenish Yangtze River tributary

The QANAT: March 15-21

“…drought proves the central authorities have, until now, paid little attention to water conservation projects, said Bai Enpei, governor of Yunnan”  No end in sight to prolonged drought in southChina Daily
“We shouldn’t celebrate [big projects] as a triumph over nature,” Ma said. “We should humbly think about how we got cornered into such a situation.” As economy booms, China faces major water shortage Washington Post


“Twelve of the 14 cities in southern China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region are affected by drought, the regional flood-control and drought relief authority announced Monday. ” Drought forecast to worsen in Guangxi China Daily
“The current soil conditions are still suitable for corn in the next 10 years. Then farmers can plant radishes, which are more salt-tolerant,” she said. “However, when radishes can’t be planted anymore after 10 years, what should they plant?” Wen asked.” Drought biggest threat to agriculture China Daily
“In March 2008, icy water flooded 11 villages and a township in Hangjin banner, causing the evacuation of around 13,000 people. About 20,000 homes were destroyed and more than 33,000 livestock died.” Workers race against thawing ice on Yellow River China Daily
“Much of Syria’s farmland is irrigated by flooding, which wastes water, instead of through pipes and tubes, Mr. Yazigi said. “Modernization of agriculture has been neglected.” Water Crisis Grips Syria New York Times
“Coupled with mismanagement of water resources, Pakistan’s woes are compounded by rising silt levels in Indus waters, deforestation and rising temperatures.” India links Pakistan’s concerns on water to ‘mismanagement’ Daily Times
“I’m concerned,” [President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono] said. “If the world fails to prevent the possibility of interest clashes in the search and control over food, energy and water resources, these aspects will become new sources of global conflict and prompt wars.” Food, energy security may spark conflict The Jakarta Post
“The local government has been rationing water to each household in the village since January, but just a meager amount, enough to keep everyone alive.” Waiting for a miracle called rain China Daily


“A family that makes $100 a month can spend as much as a quarter of that on water, which, elsewhere in Pakistan, costs pennies and flows out of household taps.”  Karachi ‘water mafia’ leaves Pakistanis parched and broke Los Angeles Times
“There is a real danger of governments signing up to the human right to water, without committing to the additional finance required by local government to deliver that right.” Another bad idea which we need to act on Global Water Intelligence

What are the alternatives?

Peter Gleick recently posted some remarks regarding dam building Southern California.  Find his post at Circle of Blue here.  I agree with his perspectives on the need for fiscal responsibility when it comes to these mega-projects of the Central Valley Project in California (seen on the right).  Especially when the beneficiaries are the same farmers who still owe money on previous enormous public works projects.

However, I am curious about alternatives to dams.  He says

“It won’t solve agriculture’s more fundamental challenges. It won’t restore our Delta ecosystems. It won’t satisfy new urban demands. In the end, the massive new infrastructure proposed for public financing would be an expensive distraction from real solutions.”

Okay.  Of course I believe you.  But, I’m left wondering what are “agriculture’s more fundamental challenges?”  Is it water use efficiency?  Is it crop choice?  Is it entrenched dogma about water rights?

Also, what are the “real solutions” you mention?

Clarification on these points could help facilitate a more productive discussion about how to move forward.