Laos is suffering a severe drought amid low rainfall and high temperatures, which is affecting not only the country’s food security but also farmers’ livelihoods.
The lack of rain has delayed rice production in the country’s 800,000 hectares of wet-season rice fields, with transplantation only 40 percent completed, according to a report in the Vientiane Times on July 24.
“Low rainfall and high temperatures are destroying the crops of Lao farmers across the country against the backdrop of an ongoing drought in the Southeast Asian region,” the paper noted.
The drought comes alongside record low water levels of the Mekong River, which flows through Laos.
In Vientiane, the water level of the Mekong is 0.7 meters, or 5.54 meters below its long-term average water level measured over 57 years (1961-2018). It is about 1.36 meter lower than the minimum level.
Between June 16 and July 18, there was a drop of 5.58 meters at the station, according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC).
Water levels of the Mekong River are also at their lowest recorded between June and July, falling below their historical long-term minimum levels.
MRC cited deficient rainfall over the Mekong basin as among key factors that have contributed to the current state.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Forestry Bounkhuang Khambounheuang has informed provincial and district authorities to send officials to help farmers immediately, rather than waiting for official advice from the ministry.
Provincial agriculture and forestry departments have also been told to prepare fast-growing rice varieties for farmers while they wait for the rains.
“Our agriculture officials might encourage farmers to grow other crops that result in higher economic returns,” Bounkhuang said, as quoted by Vientiane Times. “Farmers who have borrowed money from banks need to report to authorities regarding the number of damaged crops so the government can help negotiate with the banks.”
Meanwhile, a steering committee to work with farmers has been set up in Xayaboury province where only 45 percent of 34,000 hectares of wet-season rice fields have been transplanted.
Director of the province’s Agriculture and Forestry Department, Somvang Keolaysack, expressed his concern that if the drought continues crops in the province will die, and it could face a rice shortage in the year to come.
Provincial Deputy Governor Bounphak Inthapanya said the province has encouraged both the public and private sectors to help pump water for farmers.
In particular, the province has asked private companies with water pumps to give its authorities access to them so that they can pump water for farmers in affected areas, she added.
Cooperation with neighbors
Laos is not the only nation in the region battling a drought.
In Thailand, about 1,600,000 hectares of paddy fields in 20 provinces in the North, Northeast and Central Plains have been affected by a lack of rainfall, raising concerns over the drop in rice production and rise in rice prices in the second half of this year.
“I am worried about farmers because they have invested much, but there is a water shortage. Irrigation must be limited to maintain tap water production and protect consumers,” said the Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, as quoted by Bangkok Post on July 24.
In an effort to relieve damages, Thailand has asked China, Myanmar and Laos to release more water into rivers to help relieve the drought conditions in the country where only 40% of farmland was irrigated.
“There had been talks with China, Myanmar and Laos, asking them to release more stored water so it would reach downstream regions,” Gen Prayut added.
The provincial irrigation office in Nakhon Phanom had already begun to conserve water at all 13 reservoirs in the province’s 12 districts in preparation to provide drought relief.
Farmers outside the irrigated zones were also told to reduce farming activities to avoid damage from the drought.
There is a silver lining. The Lao Meteorology and Hydrology Department has issued a forecast, suggesting that there will be more rainfall at the end of July and early August.
“The rainfall will result in a gradual rise in the level of the Mekong and its main tributaries,” the department said.
MRC also said in early July that the situation is expected to improve at the end of July, with rain in the forecast.
At that time, MRC quoted the Asian Specialized Meteorological Center as saying that wetter-than-average conditions may develop over parts of the region between the Indian and Pacific Oceans and eastern Mekong sub-region.