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Mighty Mekong slows to a trickle

Australian bushfires and Southeast Asia's drought have much in common

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Mighty Mekong slows to a trickle

The Mekong River has struck a record low level amid massive dam construction, drought and climate change, threatening the livelihoods of millions who live along its banks. (Photo: Luke Hunt/ucanews)

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A recent flurry of alarming headlines painted a grim outlook for the Mekong River, with coverage dominated by the damage caused by dams, drought and climate change, which are all now a reality and no longer warnings that can be swept aside by willfully blind politicians.

In too many places the river has turned blue, meaning there is a severe lack of the sediment needed to replenish the banks, with soil erosion looming as the next threat to thousands of homes and buildings after access to food.

Fish catches are puny and bureaucrats are panicky about what to do with 70 million people who rely on the river. Many have spent the past year wandering its course like a lost tribe.

It’s the stuff of Water Wars, an issue that dates back to the 1992 International Conference on Water and the Environment when scientists warned climate change and water scarcity could redefine how conflicts are fought in future.

That matters when the world’s 12th longest river, traversing six countries, is hitting its lowest ebb ever and any relief from the wet season is still six months away.

The Indian Ocean Dipole

The lack of water in the Mekong Delta is about as unseasonal as the Australian bushfires, which normally ignite as summer ends with February, March and April considered the danger months, but this season the fires arrived six months earlier as a long drought persisted.

Droughts in Southeast Asia and Australia have also been tied to the same cause and effect, spawned across the Indian Ocean in a climate phenomenon known as the Dipole.

Unusually cooler than average sea urface temperatures across the eastern half of the Indian Ocean cause less rainfall as warmer waters in its west cause floods in East Africa. It’s a phenomenon that has been exacerbated by global warming and is now peaking at record extremes.

Those extremes normally occur once every 17.3 years but scientists are forecasting its frequency will increase to once every 6.3 years over this century. Whether politicians like it or not, that means a total rethink of how people live, where they are housed and what they eat to survive.

As a first world country, Australia is far more capable of at least grappling with the devastating drought —  and horrendous fires currently enveloping the eastern seaboard — than Southeast Asia, a mix of impoverished and developing nations run by authoritarian regimes.

But at the heart of both crises is human intervention. In Australia too many fires were deliberately lit by arsonists. Along the Mekong too many dams, advocated by politicians and funded by banks, are ruining the natural water course.

The cold comfort of ‘I told you so’

The Mekong’s ills are being defined by a clamor for growth at any cost by the greedy few and an ability to silence or kill those who question, highlighted by the abduction and disappearance of the renowned Laos agriculturalist Sombath Somphone in 2012 and many others since then.

As the Dipole and its Pacific Ocean equivalent, El Nino, formed a backdrop to dire warnings two decades ago, few outcomes were as predictable as the damage caused by dam construction in China and Laos.

Experts like Australian academic and historian Milton Osborne were among those who feared the worst and said so. So were environmentalists, dismissed as left-wing ratbags along with scientists who told the inconvenient truth.

Countless articles have been written by journalists. The latest by Leonie Kijewski and published on Christmas Day rightly warns that the Mekong is neither a tap nor a toilet after boffins at the Mekong River Commission (MRC) released a plan to mitigate the impact of drought.

Tailored with bureaucratic jargon, the report was big on more meetings, more dialogue and advice like: "It is extremely important for the MRC to enhance cooperation with China and Myanmar."

And? Well, there was also an agreement to improve cooperation between Beijing — where the Mekong River is known as the Lancang — with the MRC signing an agreement with the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Center.

An Pich Hatda, chief executive of the MRC Secretariat, said this would help ensure “effective upper and lower Mekong river basin management for future sustainability and shared benefits.” It was just another one of many agreements big on advice but short on action.

Thatched huts and glitzy skyscrapers

That’s cold comfort for a river that has already been overfished and faces rising salinity levels and pollution by industry or inhabitants who range from those who live in thatched huts surviving hand to mouth to the well-off living in apartment blocks lining the river’s banks.

The Indian Ocean Dipole is as capable of striking record lows as it is highs. Global warming is not just about higher temperatures; it’s also about increased energy in the atmosphere which is also capable of producing much lower temperatures and much bigger wet seasons and floods as a result.

Water has to go somewhere. The sudden release of water from a dam will only flush more sediment out to the delta where at least two exit routes into the sea have already closed. As riverbanks erode and crumble, so will roads, buildings and infrastructure.

It’s a prospect that regional leaders and politicians will find difficult to fathom and one that will lead to diplomatic disputes and quite possibly conflict, with the costs borne by those who have most to lose. And it is a crisis which will dominate the headlines over the coming 12 months.

Luke Hunt is a senior opinion writer for ucanews. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of ucanews.

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