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SOUTH-EAST ASIA: Mekong Flood Warning System Fails

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Aug 18 2008 (IPS) - As communities along the Mekong River face some of the worst floods in decades, a flood warning network that combines scientific and local knowledge is under scrutiny. Activists say it has failed its first major test.

Doubts emerged after villagers in the Chiang Saen and Chinag Khong districts of northern Thailand were forced out of their homes by nearby waters from the swollen river with little warning. ‘’There was no warning for these people before the big flood on August 12th and 13th. They had no information about the rising water-level in the river,’’ says Pianporn Deetes, a coordinator for Living River Siam, a Thai environmental group.

Some communities on the banks of the Mekong had waters reach the roofs of houses, added Pianporn in a telephone interview. ‘’If the flood warning system functioned properly these communities should have not been taken by surprise. This system is not working for all the flood victims.’’

But the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an inter-government agency, says there are no flaws in the warning system. The Mekong reached a new peak this month of nearly 14 metres, exceeding the highest flood level recorded in 1966, which was 12.69 metres. In Vientiane, the Laotian capital where the MRC is based and where this river flows by, the previous flood peak was12.66 metres in 1924.

‘’We have been issuing warnings since Aug. 11,’’ says Wolfgang Schiefer, chief of the international cooperation and communication section at the MRC. ‘’Local authorities have been involved, and media have also been used by members states (of the MRC) to help this information flow about the high water levels.’’

There are 22 flood monitoring stations in the four countries that are members of the MRC – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – who are in the lower basin of this river. The MRC is also benefiting from the two flood warning stations in China’s southern province of Yunnan, where the river flows through.

‘’Communities along the river are better prepared now to deal with floods,’’ Schiefer added during a telephone interview from Vientiane. ‘’Earlier they had no immediate information that forecast floods due to a rise in the Mekong’s water level.’’

What is also sustaining the largely scientific approach to flood forecasting by the MRC since 2001 is a project that draws on the local knowledge of some communities that have coped with Mekong’s floods for decades in the lower basin. ‘’Thirty villages in Cambodia and Vietnam have been involved in a flood mitigation and management programme,’’ says Aslam Perwaiz, project manager of the Bangkok-based Asian Disaster Preparedness Centre (ADPC).

‘’The knowledge the communities had was not properly used before by the scientific community,’’ Perwaiz told IPS. ‘’They can benefit now from the two-way flow of information that enabled the villagers along the river to know when is the time to respond, to evacuate, also saving their cattle and poultry.’’

Parts of Laos, in addition to northern Thailand, have been worst affected by the surge in the river’s water level, coming weeks ahead of the normal flood season. The Mekong’s rise stems from sustained rain during the first month of the monsoon, in addition to a tropical storm that pounded the upper reaches of the river during the Aug. 8-10 weekend.

‘’We have had enormous amount of rain during this month and the river has reached its highest level I have seen in many years,’’ Nina Wimuttikosol, a resident of 24 years in Nakorn Phanom, a town along the Mekong, told IPS. ‘’There has been a lot of erosion on the river banks due to the force of the river.’’

The high levels that the Mekong River has reached this month is unusual, with the tropical storm Kammuri bringing ‘’intense and prolonged rainfall to the northern basin,’’ states the MRC. ‘’In the case of the flood water that reached Vientiane some 50 percent originated in China and the rest in (Laos) from large tributaries.’’

The floods have prompted warning messages to vulnerable communities in affected areas to avoid drinking dirty water. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has been distributing flyers across seven Laotian provinces that share the Mekong about health and safety measures for children.

‘’We are encouraging the importance of breast feeding in this situation,’’ Simon Ingram, spokesman for UNICEF’s Laos office, told IPS from Vientiane. ‘’One of the biggest risks is babies being given formula milk mixed in dirty water.’’

‘’We still do not have a clear picture of the impact the floods have had,’’ he added. ‘’We are targeting tens of thousands of people in the seven provinces.’’

Changes in the water level have become increasingly become prickly issues among the countries that share the Mekong, which flows down a 4,880-km route from Tibet, through Yunan, touching Burma, and then being shared by the four MRC countries in its lower basin before flowing out into the South China Sea.

Flood forecasting became relevant after the extreme floods in the Mekong River basin 2000, where some 800 people died, 80 percent of who were children and women living in riverbank communities. But China refused to be part of the MRC’s flood forecasting network till 2002. Beijing also refused to inform the Mekong basin countries with information on the quantity of water flowing south from Yunnan, where three dams have been built on the Mekong.

Even now, after the recent floods, the victims in northern Thailand and green groups are placing some of the blame on China for releasing water from its dams, causing an unusual surge in the river. ‘’MRC has avoided providing information on the severe flood happening to Chiang Saen and its link to the water from China, conceivably attributable to natural rainfalls as well as water released from the three dams,’’ states the Thai People Network on Mekong, a local environmentalist lobby.

The MRC says otherwise, asserting that there is no link between the Chinese dams and the floods. ‘’The current water levels are entirely the result of the meteorological and hydrological conditions and were not caused by water release from presently operating Chinese dams,’’ it states.

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