(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river

    The dry months before the monsoon rains arrive are often tough for Cambodian fishermen and farmers. But with rivers drying up and drinking water running out, conditions have rarely been as bad as they are now. 
     
    The current drought is linked to El Niño, which has been disrupting weather patterns around the world. But the harsh conditions today might only be foreshadowing far worse to come. Climate change will continue to affect the Mekong Basin region, while future droughts are expected to be exacerbated by a string of major hydropower dam projects.
     
    Experts fear that the present crisis could become the new normal for Cambodia and its neighbours, which have also been hit hard by record temperatures and a long period of extremely dry weather.
     
    “The combined effects of drought, climate change and dam building are pushing the resources of the Mekong Basin to the brink of disaster,” said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia programme director of the river protection organisation, International Rivers.
     
    In Cambodia, water shortages are reported in 18 of 25 provinces and more than 93,500 poor, rural households are affected by the drought, according to the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. They include residents of “floating villages” on the Tonlé Sap Lake, which is fed by tributaries of the Mekong.
     
    “This year is terrible. We cannot find any fish. No one is helping us, and we are almost starving,” said Kreun Phear, a fisherman who lives in Chong Pra Lay, a village built on the edge of the lake.
     
    In the dry season, the village appears much like any other; but when the lake swells up to four times its usual size during the monsoon, the houses are designed to float on empty fuel drums. The lake and surrounding rivers provide Kreun Phear's community and many like it with everything: food, water, and their livelihoods. 
     
    According to the government's Fisheries Action Coalition Team, the lake is currently just 50 centimetres deep, compared to its usual depth of between 1.2 and 1.5 metres at the same time in previous years.  
     
    Talking about the drought, Youk Senglong, FACT's deputy director, told IRIN that Cambodia has “never experienced a natural disaster like this”.
     
    The disaster is also severely affecting Cambodia’s neighbours. 
     
    In Thailand, farmers are struggling with drought and 21 people have died during a heat wave, while about two million people are short of drinking water in Vietnam. The low level of the river has also allowed saltwater to penetrate further upstream in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta region than normal, and 10 percent of the country’s rice paddies have been destroyed, according to the UN.
     
     

    Dam problems

     
    The UN says the Mekong is at its lowest level since records began nearly 100 years ago. The waters are almost half as high as the average level for this time of year.
     
    That’s bad news for about 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin region, of whom 80 percent depend on the river for food and livelihoods, according to International Rivers. 
     
    Climate conditions are largely responsible, but not entirely. The water level has also been affected by an explosion of dam building on the Mekong river, which snakes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
     
    There are six dams on China’s upper section of the Mekong already, and communities downstream have felt their impact, according to Harris of International Rivers. The organisation says that 11 more dams are planned on the Mekong downstream from China, including two in Cambodia, and the rest in Laos where two are already under construction.
     

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    Mekong dams map
    Timothy Webster/IRIN
    Hydropower dams are planned throughout the drought-stricken Mekong region
     
    "If all 11 dams are built, it will convert the lower stretches of the Mekong River into a series of stagnant reservoirs and irreversibly alter the river system of one of the world's most important and iconic rivers,” Harris told IRIN.
     

    Troubled waters

     
    Perhaps stung by the accusation that its dam building is to blame for worsening the drought, China established a partnership in March between the six Mekong countries. Called the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, it aims to focus on development and encourage “good neighbourliness,” according to a statement after a heads of state meeting.
     
    China’s other recent intervention was to release water from its Jinghong hydropower station in southwestern Yunnan Province to help the drought-stricken Lower Mekong Basin region. 
     
    Cambodian government spokesman Phay Siphan struck a conciliatory note, telling IRIN that the dams were not to blame for the drought, and noting that China had released water to aid its neighbours downstream.
     
    However, Harris said the move showed China’s growing control over the region’s water resources. Thanking China for releasing water amounts to “ignoring the negative impacts China’s dams have had on communities living along the Mekong and their role in contributing to the effects of the drought”, she added.  
     
    The real problem is what lies ahead. Alongside the existing dams and the 11 major new ones planned, hundreds more are either under construction or in the planning along the Mekong’s many tributaries. 
     
    In the meantime, drought-affected communities in Cambodia are desperately awaiting the arrival of the monsoon rains. Even after they arrive, around the beginning of June, it will take some time before the situation returns to normal, warned Yi Kim Than, who works on drought response with Plan International.
     
    “It will still be a few months before the ponds, streams and groundwater will fill up and people have water,” he said.
     
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    (PHOTO: A trench dug into a dry riverbed in seacrh for water in the area around Cambodia's Tonle Sap Lake in May)
    Dams, drought and disaster along the Mekong river
  • A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt

    Haribansa Thami gestures towards the ruined house where he used to live with his family on a mountainside in Nepal's Dolakha District.

    “I’m angry,” he said. “The people are angry. We voted for them, and we expected them to do something for us. But it is like the Nepal government is still running from the earthquake."

    Thami and his neighbours are not the only people who are angry. On 25 April, it will be one year since the first of two major earthquakes hit the country, killing nearly 9,000 people, damaging or destroying almost one million homes and disrupting 5.2 million lives.

    Emergency relief eventually reached most people thanks to local and international NGOs and the government. But the next stage – rebuilding – has barely begun, despite $4.1 billion pledged at an international donor conference last June for that very purpose.

    Now there are fears that the full amount of money may never materialise due to delays caused by the government, which instead focused on pushing through a new and controversial constitution in the months after the disaster. The constitution then sparked a 135-day unofficial blockade at the India border and an ensuing fuel crisis, slowing reconstruction further.

    SEE: Will a political dispute become a humanitarian disaster in Nepal?

    “Because of the crisis, the country couldn’t move from recovery to reconstruction,” said Plan International’s Nepal country director, Mattias Bryneson. “The slower it is, the less money they will get. If there is no project where the $4 billion can be put in, the donors will not stay.”

    ‘Deconstruction Authority’

    Hundreds of thousands of people are now bracing themselves for their second monsoon season in temporary shelters. The government recently admitted it won’t be able to finish – or even begin – the construction of permanent housing in many districts before the rains hit.

    Renu Sharma, who runs the Women’s Foundation Nepal, was blunt: “This was a natural disaster, but the humanitarian disaster is far worse.”

    The National Reconstruction Authority finally emerged from months of political squabbling as a functional body in December. It began work on 16 January, although it has only about a quarter of the staff it needs and is itself housed in a temporary building.

    SEE: How politics delayed Nepal reconstruction

    The NRA has finally dipped into the $4.1 billion pool of pledges. Of that, only around $1 billion is committed. The rest of the money is, at least theoretically, sitting in the bank accounts of the donors that have not yet signed agreements to get it to Nepal. Of the committed funds, only around $615 million is actually available in Nepal, from donors like the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and the Japan International Cooperation Agency, according to NRA Joint Secretary Ram Thapaliya.

    Half will go directly to people via compensation housing grants, and half to government ministries for rebuilding. In March, the first tranche reached a handful of victims: 50 people in Dolakha got 50,000 of an eventual 200,000 rupees (roughly $470 of $1890).

    “Though the people are very needy, though they might not be satisfied with the delays, we have had very difficult circumstances,” explained Thapaliya, before running through an extensive list of guidelines that he said needed to be written before rebuilding could begin.

    The NRA’s laudable aim is to “build back better”, and it now has 17 earthquake-resistant home designs. But some of its guidelines have backfired, prompting the Nepali Times newspaper to dub it the “Deconstruction Authority”.

    For example, people who took the initiative to rebuild quickly were shocked to find out they may not be eligible for compensation, because their houses do not fit the NRA’s designs (which only emerged in December). In Ramecchap District, the International Federation of the Red Cross was prevented from building homes for 100 families until NRA frameworks were finalised.

    “It’s frustrating,” admitted Michael Higginson, IFRC Nepal programme coordinator. “Like any humanitarian organisation, we want to get on… But the reality is, these (rules and regulations) are needed.”

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    Rubble from Nepal's earthquake
    Jennifer Rigby/IRIN
    A year after the quake, rubble still litters Dolakha District and much of the country

    ‘Too slow’

    Many donors say progress is too slow. The ADB is responsible for $200 million of the $615 million available to the NRA, and country director Kenichi Yokoyama told IRIN he wants action.

    “We need to see actual reconstruction start to happen, and fast,” he said. “Too much time has been spent on preparatory works. I think many donor agencies are getting very frustrated with the pace of progress.”

    Frustrated with waiting for the NRA to be formed and start work, some donors have gone ahead with reconstruction on their own. The UK’s Department for International Development is already spending its $100 million on reconstruction projects, including roads.

    “Donors are sceptical about the feasibility of implementing their money,” warned one high-level donor agency official who was not authorised to speak to media. He pointed out that India and China have pledged $2 billion between them, which has not yet been accessed. 

    Thapaliya said he “hopes” the money will remain available, but “time is moving on”. He promised housing reconstruction will take three years; local officials told IRIN they fear it could be more like 20.

    For Thami, it is too long to wait. As has been the case since the earthquake, he will have to depend on help from NGOs, and ultimately trust the only person he can rely on: himself.

    “This is a temporary shelter for one to two years. We made it because we expected the money, but (the government) are late in everything,” he said. “But I am hopeful I can rebuild my life. I’m young, I can do things for my future.”

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    A year after Nepal quake, billions unspent and little rebuilt

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