BANGKOK: For nearly a decade now, people in the Mekong River Basin have had to deal with water shortages. So why has so little been done in response? It certainly seems reasonable to assume that the average citizen tends to ignore these issues until the day the taps run dry.
What is incomprehensible is that planning agencies like the Mekong River Commission (MRC) typically wait until the situation has reached crisis proportions before calling an emergency meeting to formulate a response. Such was the case last Wednesday when hydrologic experts from across the region gathered in Vietnam to discuss the fact that we humans are not in full control of the elements.
One need not be a trained planner to understand that the more we take from a finite resource, the greater the likelihood that shortages will occur. And any farmer can tell you that rainfall and river flows are subject to annual fluctuations.
It is not out of the question to expect below-average rainfall for several years in a row. Combine these two factors and the occasional crisis begins to appear inevitable.
Nine years ago, the MRC was established to guide the “sustainable development” of the Mekong basin’s water resources. Region-wide water shortages reveal that people at the MRC are having a tough time doing their jobs.
The commission’s greatest achievement so far has been the agreement among member nations to notify each other when they plan to divert water from the river. This agreement, of course, does not include China, which is not a part of the MRC, although any new upstream dams on the river will affect the volume of water flowing downstream.
The MRC’s research on navigation, flood control and hydropower development, although interesting, is of less importance and urgency when compared to the critical issues relating to water scarcity, which could threaten food and water security in the Mekong basin areas.
Unlike bird flu, this issue is not something that emergency actions or the passage of time will resolve. In fact, the future appears even more grim when the anticipated impact of global climate change is factored in.
Soon-to-be-released research by Chulalongkorn University’s South-East Asia START Regional Centre warns that the region can expect the dry season to gradually grow by an extra month over the next half century.
At the rate our planners are moving, this potential disaster is already at our doorstep.
Possible solutions to these problems remain slow in coming. Governments and policy-makers have launched a water conservation awareness campaign, urging people to reduce consumption in an attempt to avert potential crises.
Building new dams or reservoirs is no longer a sustainable way to deal with water shortages because they will run dry one day. Neither will cloud-seeding operations, like the ones proposed last week by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, do the trick over the longer term. Any lasting and sustainable solutions must deal directly with water users, especially farmers.
Agriculture accounts for up to 90% of the Mekong basin’s water consumption. Rice, the most prominent crop in the region, requires the most water to thrive. But there are ways to deal with this, such as cultivating rice strains that require less water, such as those widely grown before the Green Revolution. Or we could make sure that rice-growing practices take advantage of all available water-saving techniques and technologies.
These solutions require much more work at the community level. It is not enough to develop proposals only to table them in conference rooms full of experts. Farmers need to be consulted, supported and told in no uncertain terms that they are the ones who must turn this crisis around.
Unfortunately, no farmer representatives were present at Wednesday’s meeting, indicating that we still have a long way to go before the MRC and member governments can put water use on a more sustainable path. - The Nation