Mon, Mar 14, 2005 - Page 5 News List

Drought-stricken Southeast Asia seeks assistance

PARCHED Vast swaths of crops in the region have suffered millions in damages as a result of a drought, prompting calls for international aid money


One of the worst droughts in years in Southeast Asia has raised concerns over crop losses in the region, prompting an emergency meeting in Thailand and a call from Cambodia for international assistance.

Ten areas in the northern Thai province of Chiang Mai were declared disaster zones on Friday so they could seek emergency assistance to alleviate the hardships of farmers and fishermen.

Vietnam's eight Central Highlands provinces are suffering their worst drought in 28 years, affecting about 1 million people and causing an estimated 1.3 trillion dong (US$80 million) worth of crop losses.

The country's coffee industry -- the world's second largest, worth US$533 million in 2004 -- is threatened because the main bean-producing region is one of the hardest hit, said Nguyen Huu Trung, an official in Daklak province.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen on Saturday called for assistance from the international community as well as fellow Cambodians for a national campaign to help farmers who are short of water, while in Thailand, the newly appointed agriculture minister -- on her second day in the job -- chaired a three-hour emergency meeting on the problem expected to affect 70 of the country's 76 provinces.

In Cambodia, about 700,000 villagers are reeling from water shortages, authorities there said. Serious droughts have badly affected impoverished Cambodia for the past two years.

Laos, where most farming involves subsistence agriculture, is experiencing a drought more severe than last year because of a lack of rainfall and declining water levels in the Mekong River, said Wilawan Panulas, chief of rice and vegetable planning at the country's Agriculture Ministry.

Poor farmers in remote areas may be driven deeper into debt as they are forced to borrow money to survive, said Nhem Vanda, chairman of Cambodia's National Disaster Management Committee.

In northeastern Thailand, caravans of 10-wheeled trucks must travel through the hills to bring water to households in remote villages.

Scientists debate what is to blame.

Seasonal fluctuations in rainfall are at the heart of the problem, but the situation has become more difficult in recent years with a decline in water levels of the mighty Mekong River, which runs through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The decline has a knock-on effect, as the Mekong's tributaries experience lower water levels or in some cases dry up entirely.

"Global warming has caused rainfall to decrease and the land to become hotter, which makes water evaporate more quickly," said Kansree Bunprakob, a scientist at Bangkok's Ramkhamhaeng University.

Other environmentalists say that new dams upstream in China -- built primarily to generate electricity -- obstruct water flow on the Mekong sufficiently to disrupt the river's ecosystem and harm agriculture and fisheries in the lower basin.

"The water level in the Mekong River has continued to drop in dry season since China built the first dam in 1992," said Chainarong Setthachua, director of the Southeast Asian Rivers Network, an environmental group based in Thailand.

Thai agriculture officials said spotty downpours during the rainy season and the early ending of that season this year led to lower water levels in rivers, lakes and dams throughout the country.

The rice crop this year is expected to fall 11 percent to 14 percent from last year's harvests, they said, and sugar cane production is also expected to drop drastically.

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