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Southeast Asia

Mekong lower, fears higher
By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK - The annual dry spell affecting the Mekong River basin this year has brought into relief the vulnerability of millions of rural people who depend on the river for their livelihood when the waters dip to unexpected lows. After all, as recent research has pointed out, eight out of every 10 people who live in the 800,000-square-kilometer lower reaches of the Mekong River depend on water for their two primary occupations, fishing and farming.

This season's receding water level, noticed at three points through which Southeast Asia's largest river flows - Chiang Saen in Thailand, Vientiane in Laos and the Tonle Sap River in Cambodia - has also become a cause for concern among some of the region's water specialists.

"The Mekong's water level in Vientiane is the lowest it has ever been," said Robyn Johnston of the Phnom Penh-based Mekong River Commission (MRC). "But the levels at Chiang Saen are similar to the lows seen in 1992."

Reports in Thai media have also described unusually dry stretches of the river at the border of Thailand and Laos, saying that levels at some point were at a 20-year low of 2.6 meters instead of the usual four to five meters during the dry season. Fishermen at Ban Haad Kham village in northeastern Thailand were quoted as saying that the low - and fluctuating - water levels have put their livelihoods at risk.

To prevent the depleting water levels from worsening - consequently drying up the food supply of people living in the Mekong basin - an international research body unveiled a plan here on Thursday to pursue studies aimed at producing more food using less water. This research effort, under the Challenge Program on Water and Food by the Consultative Group on International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), is also geared at striking a balance between achieving food security and protecting the river's rich biodiversity.

The Challenge Program is funding eight projects focusing on agriculture productivity and the efficiency of water use in the Mekong region, states a background note by the MRC. They include designing farming systems that will serve multiple purposes, such as having a wide variety of crops being grown along with other food sources and fish. Also earmarked is a study to "develop improved technologies for rice-based cropping systems, with the aim of increasing yield without more water use".

To counter the high salinity experienced by Vietnam, CGIAR has agreed to fund a program that seeks to conceive rice varieties and cultivate strategies that "can cope with high levels of salinity".

The Mekong River basin project, which is estimated to cost US$10 million, is part of a global exercise focusing on nine major river basins, including the Nile in Egypt and the Yellow River in China, being spearheaded by CGIAR. "The Mekong is the least developed of the nine river basins we are working on," said Jonathan Woolley, the global program coordinator of the Challenge Program.

The Mekong begins in the Tibetan plateau and journeys across 4,880km, snaking through southern China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia until it flows out from Vietnam into the South China Sea.

In addition to being used for agriculture and fishing, the river's waters have been harnessed for domestic use and for the more controversial dams being built to supply hydropower to meet the energy needs of some countries.

Between 55 million and 60 million people live in the lower Mekong region, states the MRC in a report, but adds further that the population is expected to increase to 90 million by 2025. This trend itself, along with environmental degradation, puts additional pressure on the region in the form of food-security and water conflicts and could even provoke a tussle between farmers and fishermen, say MRC officials.

Despite being in such close proximity to this abundant body of water, many people in Cambodia and Laos still do not have access to safe water. "Fewer than 40 percent of the households have safe water or adequate sanitation," the report adds.

Other social indicators in the river basin are as disconcerting, such as poverty affecting nearly 40 percent of the people from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.

For many, fisheries remain a vital source of food and income, a fact borne out by the estimated 1.75 million tonnes of fish caught annually in the basin. This yield, valued at $1.45 billion, amounts to about 20 percent of the annual fish catch from inland waters.

"Most of the 12 million rural households in the LMB [lower Mekong basin] fish as well as farm, and fish are the main source of animal protein in most people's diets," according to the report.

Agriculture, it points out, remains the "most important" economic activity in the basin, with rice being the main crop. "Overall, an estimated 75 percent of the LMB population earn their livelihood through agriculture."

But in the plans that lie ahead, the CGIAR's program will try to harness the diverse rice varieties in the region produced by local communities, rather than opting only for hybrid varieties that come out of laboratories, Woolley told a press conference here.

"But there will be no specific exclusion of genetically modified rice varieties. Every case will be studied," he added. "I don't think you are going to see an increase in the spread of GMOs [genetically modified organisms] in the region."

Woolley's assurance comes at a time when environmental and grassroots groups have been critical of the move by agribusiness giants to push for greater use of hybrid crops in the developing world.

The commitment to engage local communities in the plans also marks a shift from the pattern common across the region of governments paying little regard to the people living on the riverbanks when it comes to large national development projects.

"In all Mekong region countries there are local systems, functioning more or less well, to deal with allocation and use [of water]," John Dore of the Mekong Region Water Governance Network said in an interview. "As the development decisions scale up, the degree to which local views are factored into the decision-making varies from state to state."

(Inter Press Service)

Mar 12, 2004

Mekong Sunset
A four-part ATol special by James Borton
(Aug, '02)

Asia's potential water fights
(Mar 25, '03)

A flawed vision for the Mekong region?
(Nov 6, '02)

Mekong's dams wreak havoc on rural poor
(Apr 10, '02)


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