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Comments from the Experts

Laos Water Resources Experts: What Caused the Drought This Year?

Abstract: In recent years, Mekong countries have experienced many severe droughts. The unusually less rainfall caused by climate change is the main cause of drought in Mekong River Basin. To deal with drought disasters, Laos should learn from the good practices of the international community, and formulate long-term plans, strengthen regional cooperation in water resources, build a water infrastructure network, and enhance climate change adaptability.  

We have just experienced a dry season with little rain as well as a dry rainy season, and the drought continues at the beginning of the new dry season. Drought, one of the most influential natural disasters in the world, has caused enormous losses to the economy and livelihood of people in Mekong River Basin (MRB) in the past few decades. 

In the overall context of global warming, MRB is facing challenges of rising temperature and increasing drought. When the strong El Niño phenomenon occurs along with high temperature or the southwest monsoon weakens, the basin is prone to suffer persistent severe droughts, such as the extreme droughts in 1998, 2003, 2016 and the severe drought that continues this year. According to meteorological data, rainfall in the upper reaches of Mekong River (the Lancang River Basin) in April, May, June, and August 2019 was 51%, 71%, 39%, and 43% less than longterm average respectively. At present, the water level of the Nuozhadu Reservoir in the main stream of the Lancang River in China is the lowest since its establishment (27 meters lower than the historical average for this time of year). During this time, severe droughts occurred in Laos. For example, the rainfall in the first half of 2019 in the Nam Ou River Basin decreased by 41% compared with the same period in 2018, and decreased by 29% from July to September. The Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS) had also reported phenomenon that less rainfall in the rainy season in Mekong River, in the weekly flood situation reports of recent months. Therefore, severe drought is caused by natural factors this year. 

The research on climate change show that the frequency and intensity of extreme events are increasing in most regions of the world, including the drought and flood in MRB. If the two extreme events of drought and flood occur together, such as the alternation of drought and flood or the rapid transition between drought and flood, it will bring more severe damage to the social economy and ecological environment. International experiences show us in response to drought and flood, structural measures and non-structural measures should be taken simultaneously, among which structural measures are the fundamental guarantee. One practical structural measure is to build sufficient water storage facilities, of which flood prevention and water storage functions can be exerted when flood comes, and water supply function can be exerted when drought strikes. For example, in order to cope with flood and drought disasters, the United States has built a large number of huge water conservancy facilities, some of which have been in operation for more than 100 years, providing important support for economic and social development, and these facilities are still functioning now. China's Three Gorges Project on Yangtze River has not only brought great benefits of flood control and disaster relief, but also greatly improved the navigation capability of Yangtze River and also made important contribution to China's energy security. The Three Gorges Project is a successful case of comprehensive river basin management in the world. Many European developed countries including Norway and Switzerland have also built a large number of reservoirs and properly handled the relationship between power generation, flood control, irrigation and shipping, thus promoted economic and social development. 

In order to cope with drought, ensure safe water supply, and support the sustainable development of the social economy, we should learn from successful international experience and practices and do the following work: 

1. Enhance the development in water conservancy infrastructure 

For developing countries like us Laos, we must clearly understand the importance and irreplaceability of developing water conservancy infrastructure. Laos has an average annual water resource of 334 billion cubic meters (including transit), but the rainfall is distributed unevenly during the year. More than 80% of the rainfall happens in the rainy season. However, the existing reservoirs in Laos have severe shortages of regulation capacity, so we have to face the reality that the country is prone to suffer from flood in the rainy season and drought in the dry season. The regulating capacity of the reservoirs built by the United States on the Columbia River and the Colorado River is 5-10 times that of ours. The regulating capacity of Han River Basin of the Yangtze River is about five times that of ours. These water conservancy projects played important role in the United States and China in flood control, drought relief and social economical development. We urgently need to build some water storage projects, and make full use of the existing reservoirs to achieve comprehensive utilization. This is our fundamental guarantee in dealing with flood and drought. 

The development of water conservancy infrastructure needs great financial input. As a developing country, we should create a good investment environment, encourage private capital and foreign capital to invest in Laos' water conservancy and hydropower infrastructure, in order to better serve Laos' economic and social development and people's livelihood and well-being. At the same time, it is necessary to prepare comprehensive water resources master plans and scientific layout of important infrastructure such as reservoirs. At present, with the support of Chinese water conservancy experts and the assistance of relevant international organizations, we are carrying out, for example, the master plans of Nam Ou River and Nam Theun/Kading River Basin which will help guide the comprehensive utilization and management of water resources in these two basins. 

2. Improve the management capacity against flood and drought 

Due to the less rainfall in the rainy season, currently the major reservoirs have significantly less water storage than in previous years. The state of less rainfall has continued to this day, so we may face severe drought problem in this dry season. We must comprehensively understand the current situation of water supply in drought-stricken areas, formulate water supply plans in phases, and retain sufficient domestic water. At the same time, taking into consideration the needs of drought-resistant water use, we must further enhance the optimal regulation and operation of reservoirs and other infrastructures, especially the regulation in the comprehensive utilization of water resources, keeping a healthy balance among water use for power generation, ecological and domestic water use. We must also attach great importance to dam safety management so as to ensure the normal function of flood prevention and drought relief. In dealing with drought relief, we must pay close attention to the disadvantaged groups and ensure the safety of their drinking water. 

The current legal and regulatory system for the management and development of water resources in Laos needs to be further improved. It is necessary to establish a management mechanism that can make overall coordination among related departments and government units at all levels. Emergency response plans for flood prevention and drought relief needs to be prepared. Rules and regulations on water conservancy projects, river regulation, use of water resources, preservation of water ecological environment need to be formulated in order to improve Laos' capability in dealing with flood and drought. 

3. Strengthen management system and personnel training  

Drawing on the international experience in water resources management, we need to gradually establish a water resources management system that is in line with the actual situation in Laos. Water resources are the basic resources for economic and social development and involve all areas of the society. This work has a long way to go. China has gained rich experience in dealing with the most complex water problems in the world and established a practical water resources management system. At present, we are in close communication with international colleagues including experts from China, learning from international experience and gradually establishing a management system which fit in the situation of Laos. The implementation of the management system depends on qualified personnel in water resources profession. In recent years, Laos has also increased the effort on the training of water resources talents. Talents who have returned from China, Europe, Japan and other countries have played an important role in relevant positions. At the same time, we should promptly inform the public about major water issues, actively respond to public concerns, and seek public understanding and support for water resources management. 

4. Promote international cooperation in water resources management from the perspective of the overall Lancang-Mekong River basin 

Laos is located in the middle of the Lancang-Mekong River. The water resources management of Laos is an important part of the water resources management of the Lancang-Mekong River Basin and has a significant impact on the scientific utilization and protection of water resources of the river basin. We should make full use of the international cooperation mechanisms in the Lancang-Mekong region to strengthen policy dialogue, technical exchanges, and information sharing on the basis of mutual respect for the rational development rights of all countries, and to gather international funds and resources to help Laos improve its capabilities in water resources management. On this basis, we should sensibly understand the challenges and problems we face in the field of water resources, strengthen communication and cooperation with upstream and downstream countries in the basin, especially strengthen water resources cooperation under the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation mechanism, and deal with floods and droughts so as to benefit the people of the countries in Lancang-Mekong River Basin and maintain the sustainable development of the basin.