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Cambodia’s water shortages blamed on extended dry spell

Water trucks and even fire engines deployed to distribute water amid a heat wave that’s expected to continue
Local municipal workers distribute water to villagers in Kouk Roka commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia on March 27

Local municipal workers distribute water to villagers in Kouk Roka commune on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in Cambodia on March 27. (Photo: AFP)

Published: April 05, 2023 06:58 AM GMT
Updated: April 05, 2023 06:59 AM GMT

Cambodian authorities have told businesses to cut down on water usage and asked farmers not to plant a second rice crop amid a chronic water shortage in Phnom Penh which has been blamed on an extended dry spell.

Residents have also been told to stock up on clean drinking water with the Phnom Penh Water Supply Authority warning of low water pressure and poor quality supply through the taps, with temperatures forecast to exceed 40 degrees Celsius over the coming weeks.

“Participation requires everyone to stop wasting water. Use less water to wash cars and motorcycles, for watering plants, and so on,” Phnom Penh’s Deputy Governor Nuon Pharath told local media.

The water authority says water demand in Phnom Penh has increased to more than 890,000 cubic meters a day, but it could only produce about 640,000 cubic meters a day resulting in a shortage of about 250,000 cubic meters.

Water trucks and fire engines have also been deployed to suburbs and other parts of the country with no clean water. Tanks are being installed and chronic shortages are expected to last into May when the annual monsoon is due to begin.

Chronic water shortages were also recorded in the capital last year amid a three-year drought – which was declared over late last year amid heavy rains – when authorities were confident the issue would be resolved by January this year with new clean water facilities coming online.

Phase 1 of the Bakheng water treatment is scheduled to be completed shortly and phase 2 will be completed in the first quarter of 2024, adding a further 400,000 cubic meters per day to the system. Another water treatment plant is due for completion in October.

Environmentalists say the lack of water has been made all the worse by climate change and massive upstream dam construction in China and Laos where governments have, in the past, been accused of water hoarding.

Despite decades of complaints from scientists 11 dams now block the mainstream of the Mekong River in China and Laos. Another 118 dams have been built on its tributaries and yet another dam is under construction near Luang Prabang, a World Heritage Site.

Shortages occurred as the Mekong River Commission (MRC) wrapped up its latest International Conference in Vientiane admitting the region’s largest river system has serious problems with a lack of water flow, sand mining, rising salinity, plastics in the water table, and climate change.

“This situation is projected to worsen if we continue business as usual; more needs to be done,” said Bounkham Vorachit, the Laotian Minister of Natural Resources and Environment.

She urged the engagement of all stakeholders – including international organizations, the private sector, civil society and academia – to pay particular attention to the livelihoods of the poorest, most vulnerable residents.

“Mobilizing political will remains crucial,” Vorachit said. “Equally important is to be forward-thinking and a willingness to consider innovative ways to approach local, regional and international cooperation.”

However, the MRC has been accused of ignoring the problems and has long been criticized as “too soft” and “too weak” when dealing with the authoritarian regimes that manage the river system and big business which has profited through dam construction.

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