PHNOM PENH – With horror images showing fields of plastic rubbish bobbing on turquoise seas around the world, one could be forgiven for welcoming the sight of one of the world’s great rivers turning a fresh blue. However the azure hue seen in recent weeks along stretches of the Mekong is stirring concerns that dozens of hydroelectric dams, the biggest of which are in China, are interrupting the river’s natural flow and blocking sediment that should be carried to farmland downriver that helps feed 60 million people. Earlier this month the Mekong River Commission, a regional intergovernmental body, put the colour change down to “extremely low flow, slow drop in the river sediments,” after warning last month that the Mekong region could face serious drought over the turn of the year.
BANGKOK — A confluence of drought and dams along the Mekong River has renewed concerns about the future of the 4,763 kilometer waterway, upon which tens of millions of people depend for their livelihoods in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The number of dams impeding the Mekong’s flow is fast multiplying, drying up segments of the once fast-flowing river and leaving the region facing imminent drought, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC), a regional intergovernmental body that aims to jointly manage the river’s water resources. “China’s operators of the Jinghong Dam and the Thai operators of the newly opened Xayaburi dam in Laos conducted operations that actually exacerbated the drought,” said Brian Eyler, director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a US think tank. “Those dams and more than 70 others now operational in Laos and China all contribute to deteriorating downstream conditions related to the drought.”
VIENTIANE — The capital of Laos is a low-rise, low-key city, especially when compared with the hulking high-rises and bustling streets of better known Southeast Asian cities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. But Vientiane is fast shedding its sedate reputation amid a building boom ahead of a series of international summits that will bring U.S. President Barack Obama, China’s President Xi Jinping and a host of other world leaders to the city in 2016. Construction cranes tower over the city’s two- and three-storey shophouses and hotels — the din of diggers and drills drowning out the once quiet capital’s increasingly dense traffic. “So many shopping malls now — around 20 going up all around the city,” said Pouthong Sengchanh, standing over a model of the Vientiane New World project — a mix of shops, restaurants and offices newly stretching along the city’s Mekong riverfront.
LUANG PRABANG — Although Laos will soon to join the World Trade Organization, in economic terms it remains very much Southeast Asia’s forgotten country, a landlocked backpacker magnet of unexploded ordnance and winding roads, nicely topped off by stunning jungle, river and mountain vistas. Lying between China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Burma and Thailand, Communist-ruled Laos has worked off what economists like to call “a low base,” with the country’s economy averaging 7-8 percent gross domestic product growth, built on hydropower development – which has raised the hackles of international environmentalists – and a mining boom. The ruling Lao People’s Revolutionary Party (LPRP) started opening slowly to the outside world in the late 1980s, around the same time as neighboring Vietnam’s doi moi or renovation reforms got underway, in which a similar one-party Communist regime slowly liberalized parts of its economy. But despite the parallel paths, Vietnam’s much bigger economy – though recently struggling with slowing growth, graft scandals and inflation – is much more diversified than that of Laos. One of the world’s poorest countries, Laos’ annual per capita gross domestic product by purchasing power parity is just US$2,700 per year, ranking it 177th in the world and well below Vietnam’s US$3,400.