Drought ravages Laotian rice fields: only 40 per cent of cultivable land has been planted

More than 60 per cent of the country's farmland goes to rice production, mostly during the rainy season, from late May to late September. Low water levels affect fluvial navigation. Hydroelectric dams hold back water, aggravating the situation for farmers and other residents.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/RFA) – A severe drought continues to afflict the Mekong region. Water levels have fallen drastically and seasonal monsoon rains are slow to arrive, this according to Laotian Ministry of Agricultural and Forestry.

As a result of the drought, Laotian rice farmers have been able to plant only on 40 per cent of the country’s approximately 850,000 hectares of arable land, this, in a country where more than 60 per cent of farmland is dedicated to rice cultivation.

Most of the producing provinces are located along the Mekong river and almost all rice production occurs during the rainy season, from late May to late September.

In the northern province of Luang Namtha, farmers managed to plant rice on just over half of the cultivable land. Because it is too dry, only 5,296 hectares out of a total of 9,678 have been planted. This year’s rice production will be over 17,500 tonnes lower than in 2018.

The drought is also affecting more than 7,000 hectares of rice fields in Vientiane province. Rice was planted on 37,963 hectares, but 2,271 of those have become too dry. Hence, all the rice planted has died. Another 4,800 hectares are already too dry. Provincial authorities are making extra rice seed available to farmers, although this may not be enough.

In Borikhamxay province, central Laos, farmers planted rice early last month, but here too the plants had died. In Pak Song, a district in southern Laos’ Champassak province, farmers have not planted any rice yet.

Growers in the northwestern province of Oudomxay have been able to plant rice on about 60 per cent of the area’s 16,200 hectares of cultivable land, whilst those in Khammouane province in the central part of the country have been able to plant on nearly 90 per cent of the area’s 84,000 cultivable hectares,

Drought has also affected fluvial navigation. Low water levels in the northern Mekong have made it impassable, disrupting ship traffic.

Chinese and Thai cargo ships have been unable to navigate between the town of Luang Prabang and the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Myanmar meet at the confluence of the Ruak and Mekong rivers.

Bounthong Souvannahan, deputy director of Laos’ Meteorology Department, said this year’s rainfall has been only half of what it was up to this time in 2018, and that Chinese and Lao dams have released only 50 per cent of the amount of water they usually release this time of year.

Hydroelectric dams along the Mekong, such as Laos’ Xayaburi Dam and China’s Jinghong Dam, are holding back water for their own purposes, exacerbating the problem for farmers and residents downstream who depend on the river for their livelihoods.