Monday, April 26, 2010

The Mighty Mekong - First Major Casualty of Global Warming?

Since last September, much of southeast Asia has been caught in the grip of a severe drought. This combined with numerous other factors, including an ambitious hydro construction program and rising sea levels, is creating worldwide concern about the future of the Mekong.

This year, there have been widespread reports that it has been possible to walk across the once-mighty river that upwards of 60 million people depend on in this region. It seems impossible to imagine that this river that runs through the midst of steamy monsoon jungles could now be at risk for its very existence. The fact is there have been reports of "walking across" the Mekong coming out of Laos, Vietnam and Thailand.

Ironically, just yesterday, the southern Vietnamese delta region of Ca Mau Cape received its official certification as a UNESCO Global Biosphere Reserve.

Ca Mau Province and most of the Mekong delta is under heavy siege from salt water infiltration due to rising sea levels, combined with low levels of fresh water from the feebly flowing Mekong.

This situation is threatening the livelihood of farmers and fishermen and production of rice and shrimp in Vietnam on a massive scale. It's a classic Catch-22 situation as the water level in the ocean becomes increasingly higher than fresh water levels in the delta. So sluices that could allow salt water needed for shrimp farms cannot be opened, because it then further contaminates low-lying rice fields with salt water.

Vietnam is one of the world's largest rice exporters, with a significant portion of the harvest going to feed poor populations in Africa. The drought has of course affected rice production in other ways
Because the future and present of four countries - Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos depend so heavily on the Mekong, a number of organizations have either taken an interest or are completely concerned with the Mekong. Among these, Save the Mekong, the Mekong River Commission, TERRA (Towards Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance) and others.

Complicating matters is that much of the upper Mekong is in China and that country has initiated a massive damming program, under which three of 14 planned dams have been completed. All four countries of the lower Mekong are suspicious and critical of Chinese plans, already putting a lot of the blame for the current situation on the Chinese. China, for its part, denies that its three operating dams have had a significant impact, and say that the low water is due only to the drought, which has also affected Chinese regions along the Mekong.
Meanwhile, the lower Mekong neighbors have their own damming programs, as shown on the map here. These ambitious multi dam projects are now coming into serious question as authorities begin to realize that, if the river is already near dry, building further dams may be dreaming in technicolor.

Global warming is throwing all these plans asunder, perhaps giving temporary relief to the multitides of species that could be threatened by dams in the world's most intensely biodiverse region.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen stated April 6 that China should not be blamed for the Mekong situation, given that China's own rivers are dry and that the entire world is suffering the effects of global warming just as the Mekong has.

Of course, any ground gained by canceling dam projects, either in China or in the lower Mekong countries, could easily be lost by the effects of whatever alternative power projects and of course drying across the region. The need for power is verging on desperate - hospitals, schools and other essentials have had their power cut off this March and April in parts of Vietnam as surging demand and 40+ C temperatures have created a nightmare scenario.

Long term prognosis: Vietnam has entered a period of runaway change, with its citizens rushing to adopt the benefits of a modernizing economy. Its population is forecast to explode and its consumer demands are going exponential. I wish I could see how this is going to work out well for everyone and the planet.

Another great source for further information is

1 comment:

The Mound of Sound said...

The Mekong is but one Asian river in serious distress. Around the world there are many once-great rivers that no longer reach the sea and many others now so contaminated by agricultural and industrial as to be hazardous and unfit for human use (even beyond simple consumption). Maude Barlow has an interesting review if this in her book "Blue Covenant."

With India now experiencing erratic Monsoons and the steady retreat of the Himalayan glacial headwaters some rivers, including the holy Ganges, are at risk of becoming seasonal streams in the mid-range future.

As industrialization grows rapidly in both India and China the rapidly growing demand for freshwater increases the pressures on these declining and no longer reliable river systems. That simply tends to compound the excessive demand already placed on aquifers. It's madness.

Even in North America the collapse of river systems is having a devastating effect. Neither the Colorado nor the Rio Grande reach the sea any longer. Astonishing.