Written by Francesca Earp
Edited by Peter Windsor
This time last year we were waist deep wading through rainwater to reach one of our project villages in Pak Ou district, Luang Prabang. Most of the year the village has easy access without the need for swimwear and goggles. Yet during the tropical monsoon wet season, usually spanning from late May through to November, these conditions change and Laos is known for its heavy rains and prolonged wet seasons. However, this year the wet season has failed to appear, and we are in the grip of one of the worst droughts to hit the country. Expert commentary suggests the 2019 drought could have long-lasting impacts, causing more damage to rural communities and the economy than the 2016 drought.
The Mekong River has recently hit new lows. Current measurements in Vientiane indicate the water level is now less than one meter; a dramatic seven meters lower than it normally is at this time. The contrast with our blog from the same time last year is astonishing: https://mekonglivestock.wordpress.com/2018/07/30/mekong-river-development-challenges-for-an-under-resourced-laos/
The current concerns began when the wet season rains that normally begin in late May failed to arrive and the Mekong River levels became progressively lower, minimizing the opportunities for the annual planting of rice crops. Scientists believe the current challenges facing Lao agriculture are a combination of the absence of the monsoonal rains as a result of an El Niño meteorological system, the increasing influence of the numerous hydropower dams operating upstream in the Mekong and its tributaries and climate change, resulting in what can only be described as a never ending dry season.
A major concern for Lao agriculture is that the impacts of the drought have been exacerbated by the growing influences of the rapidly expanding dam system along the Mekong river. With plans for a total of 11 mainstream dams and 120 tributary dams to be situated across the river, there is growing fear that the dams have already and are continuing to have dramatic and irreversible impacts on the biodiversity and useable resources of the Mekong River. A year ago, the integrity of the construction processes of these dams was questioned following the devastating dam collapse in Attapeu Province, in southern Laos. On the evening of the 23rd of July 2018, the dam being built as part of the Xe Pian-Xe Namnoy hydropower project collapsed, destroying dozens of villages with reports that over 7,000 Lao locals and several thousand Cambodians were forced to leave their homes due to the damage. The final death toll was reported as 49 although this is widely regarded as a dramatic underestimation. Just over one year later and over 5,000 villagers are still displaced and located in overcrowded camps.
The main agricultural impacts of the drought are a depleted rice harvest and a reduced fish population, from the low water levels resulting in fewer opportunities for rice planting and fish spawning. Approximately 40 percent of the regular rice crops have not been planted this season, due to the lack of rain. This will dramatically impact smallholder incomes as a majority of smallholder farmers rely on rice production. Results from our recent Focus Group Discussion sessions found that farmers often sold their livestock in emergency situations to gain extra income. A mass sale of cattle and buffalo can be predicted if the dry season continues to progress. This will also have long-term negative impacts on food security and household livelihoods.
Last week the Vientiane times reported that the drought is one of six problem issues currently impacting Laos. In addition to ongoing drought, the agricultural sector is also experiencing a devastating African Swine Fever (ASF) epidemic, sporadic Foot-and -Mouth Disease outbreaks, and an armyworm infestation in Xaybouly Province that has destroyed up to thirty percent of corn crops.
On Monday the 29th of July, some rain finally fell in our project sites, extending from Luang Prabang in the northern region to Savannakhet in the central region of the country. These falls were accompanied by some minor flooding and a spectacular show of lighting and thunder. Locals who often complain about the length of the regular wet season celebrated the cool weather and rains that arrived that Monday.
Life in Laos, like in most of the least developed countries, can be difficult. However, the current issues impacting agriculture, health and the economy are a reminder of the importance of continuing long-term agricultural research and development projects to help improve food security, despite the severity of the challenges. We extend our sympathies to the farming families in Laos impacted by the drought, flooding, ASF outbreaks and armyworm infestations, and hope to see more rains fall in coming weeks.