Cargo and tourist boats idle as drought and dams slow Mekong lifeline to trickle
By Mandy Zuo, in Jinghong, Yunnan
At sunset, dozens of cargo boats lie on the stretch of water that marks the boundary between China and Myanmar. Their crews gather to share supper and enjoy their most animated moments of the day.
They have not had much to talk about lately. Time has been ticking by slowly at the river port of Guanlei in Yunnan since early February, with vessels forced to drop anchor and crews left idle. Southwest China's once-in-a-century drought has left the level of the Lancang river, as Chinese call the Mekong, at record lows, making it impossible for the boats to continue their journey.
Asia's seventh-largest river flows from Tibet through Yunnan to Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. The Mekong basin is home to more than 60 million people and supports one of the world's most diverse ecosystems, second only to Brazil's Amazon river, according to the global environmental organisation International Rivers.
But its water levels are now so low that even everyday transport has become difficult.
Song Yunxiang, a crew member on a four-tonne vessel, said it had left the port of Jinghong , upstream, for Thailand in January but had not returned until mid-February. It usually took a vessel of that size just three days to make the round trip between Jinghong and the port of Chiang Saen in Thailand.
'We didn't make it to celebrate the Lunar New Year at home,' Song said.
'There just wasn't enough water and our ship couldn't move.'
The vessel got back on February 18 with the help of the maritime bureau, which arranged for dams upstream to release water into the river and sent a bigger ship downstream to tow it back.
He said that despite the hardship, he and his crew were lucky, because another 10 or more Chinese ships were stuck in Myanmar and Thailand.
Guanlei, in Mengla county in the Xishuangbanna Dai autonomous prefecture, is the southernmost Chinese port on the river. It connects Ganlanba and Jinghong upstream to Chiang Saen.
At Jinghong, the river has narrowed to less than a third of its normal width. Under the 600-metre-long bridge across the river, small ponds dot the dry river bed.
A middle-aged man sat on the front of one of his rafts, puffing on a cigarette and looking into the distance. His rafts normally take tourists on an 18 kilometre trip along the river, but few tourists have visited recently and he has nothing to do.
A staff member at the tourism bureau said three cruise boats usually sailed south every week but they had all been idle since February.
In 2001, four states along the Mekong - China, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand - agreed to let each other's ships ply their waters and a joint committee was formed to regulate inter-regional navigation.
Qin Yanmin, chief of the Xishuangbanna station under the committee's Chinese office, said about 70 cargo boats and six cruise boats sailed between Jinghong and the downstream ports but none had been working for almost two months.
Of the 70 freighters, most of which shuttle between Chiang Saen and Jinghong, carrying agricultural products, 50 lie idle at Guanlei and nine at Ganlanba. The rest are stranded in Myanmar and Thailand.
While the drought is a big reason for the Mekong's historic lows, countries on its lower reaches also blame mainland dam and canal building.
China plans to build eight dams on the Lancang; two are complete and three more under construction. The plans had alarmed the downstream countries long before the drought struck. The impact had already been seen in the Mekong's water levels and fisheries, International Rivers said. Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia will reportedly use a meeting this week in Hua Hin, Thailand, of the Mekong River Commission to ask China to release water from the dams on the Lancang.
Qin said a hydropower plant at Jinghong - a joint project by China and Thailand designed to provide electricity for Guangdong and Thailand - had stopped generating power because of lack of water flow.
'It's only between 200 and 300 cubic metres a second now,' he said. 'To let one turbine work requires a flow of 600. We have five turbines but none can work now.'
The drought has also driven up shipping prices. Li Jian, captain of the Hongxing No7, which left Jinghong in January and did not return until the middle of this month, said that in Thailand, the price for shipping one tonne of goods to Jinghong had risen from 25,000 yuan (HK$28,425) to 40,000 yuan.