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Mekong River drought enters fourth year

Commission urges countries along the beleaguered river to become more proactive

Mekong River drought enters fourth year

Fishermen sort out a net on a fishing boat in the Mekong River in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo : AFP)

Published: January 14, 2022 07:08 AM GMT

Updated: November 24, 2022 07:04 AM GMT

Poor rainfall, climate change and dams have produced the worst conditions along the Mekong River in more than 60 years with the region entering its fourth year of drought, threatening the livelihoods of about 65 million people.

As a result, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) is urging the six Mekong countries to urgently address “regional low flows, water fluctuations and drought.”

In its latest report, "Mekong Low Flow and Drought Conditions in 2019–2021," the MRC found that since 2015 the hydrological regime had changed, with more dry season flow and reduced wet season flow caused by increased storage reservoirs in the basin.

“This has resulted in both positive and adverse consequences. However, the 2019–2021 period was exceptional due to highly reduced rainfall and worsening climate conditions,” said An Pich Hatda, chief executive officer of the MRC Secretariat.

“Together, these factors may have adversely affected fisheries and agriculture outputs, pressured the Delta people’s livelihoods, and threatened to disturb the Mekong Basin’s delicate ecosystems.”

According to the report, 2020 was the driest year when rainfall was below normal levels in every month except October and more action was required “not just from China but from all the MRC member countries to jointly address these issues.”

In addition, the countries should examine options to build more storage to manage pressing drought and flood conditions

The remaining Mekong countries are Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.

The 100-page report also evaluated the impact of low water levels on the reverse flow into Tonle Sap lake during the wet season, an important bellwether of the wider basin’s hydrology.

It found reverse flows, as the lake is filled, in 2019 were close to average. But those water levels in 2020 and 2021 were the lowest on record.

Total reverse flows in 2020 and 2021 were 58 percent and 51 percent respectively of the average total reverse flow volume from 2008 to 2021, the report said.

It also found that dams constructed along the Upper Mekong Basin were not the primary driver of low water levels flowing into the Lower Mekong Basin but it was the combination of worsening climate and unusually low rainfall.

Total water held back on the Upper Mekong Basin’s two largest reservoirs — Xiaowan and Nuozhadu — in 2019 was less than that in 2018, 2020 and 2021, the report said.

“The six countries can take some immediate steps to mitigate the crisis. These include establishing a joint notification mechanism on unusual water level fluctuations and, in future, exploring the coordinated operation management of reservoirs and hydropower dams." Hatda said.

“In addition, the countries should examine options to build more storage to manage pressing drought and flood conditions as well as an operational model for the whole Mekong Basin.”

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