A widespread drought in several Southeast Asian countries is wreaking havoc on agricultural land and peoples' lives. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry announced this week it will conduct an emergency discharge from a Yunnan dam across the Mekong River for most of the next month. It is hoped the release will lessen water shortages in countries downstream.
Speaking at a March 15 press conference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang (陆康) confirmed water from the Jinghong Hydropower Station (景洪水电站) will be released from now until April 10, and will, in his words, "benefit Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam". In his remarks, Kang stressed that China and the countries of the Lower Mekong Basin retain amicable relations despite recent tensions, saying:
China and Mekong River countries on the Indochina Peninsula are friendly neighbors. People living along the Lancang-Mekong River are nourished by the same river. It goes without saying that friends should help each other when help is needed. Since the end of 2015, due to El Niño...countries along the Lancang-Mekong River have sustained drought of different degrees, and their people's life and work have been impacted as the drought keeps getting worse. In order to help those countries cope with the drought, the Chinese government decided to surmount the difficulties it faces and do its utmost to help.
On average, the Jinghong dam across the Mekong — known inside China as the Lancang River (澜沧江) — releases 1,000 cubic meters of water each second. That number has now been doubled, and will remain elevated until mid-April, by which time Southeast Asia's spring dry season has typically subsided.
In some areas of Vietnam, the current drought has been characterized as the worst dry-spell in a century. In the country's delta region, some 1,390 square kilometers of rice paddies have so far been damaged or destroyed by a combination of drought and salt water intrusion as the Mekong River continues to shrink. Such conditions seriously threaten Vietnam's economy, as well as the livelihoods of the 14 million people who cultivate rice along the delta.
Other countries downstream are also suffering. Thailand is reportedly facing its worst water shortages in two decades. In Bangkok, this means the upcoming new year festival Songkran has been shortened from four days to three and a curfew imposed. The city's deputy mayor, Amorn Kijchawengjul, told Reuters, "This is partly symbolic, but we hope to save water too because our lakes have become deserts."
The water release in Jinghong, while providing at least some relief from months of drought, can also be seen as a necessary act of goodwill. The water crisis in Southeast Asia has been blamed largely on climate change strengthened weather phenomenon El Niño. And while rising global temperatures are indeed an enormous issue, so too is how and if China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations member countries work together to preserve and protect the world's twelfth longest river.
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