People fish in the Mekong River below Khone Falls close to the Laos-Cambodia border. (Photo: WWF)
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has issued a severe drought warning for southern Laos, northeast Cambodia and the Central Highlands of Vietnam amid low rainfall and complaints about water hoarding upstream.
The drought is being felt along the length and breadth of the Mekong Delta and in its latest weekly forecast the MRC’s Regional Flood and Drought Management Centre in Phnom Penh said other areas in the region are also suffering moderate to severe drought.
Rainfall for the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) in May and June was about 70 percent lower than a year ago when the region was already in drought.
Figures for July were not available, although fishermen and farmers have complained that rainfall this month is also below historical averages.
Soil moisture in the catchment area of the Sekong, Sesan and Srepok rivers has been “relatively dry” this month. All three originate in Vietnam and contribute 23 percent of the flow of the Mekong River.
The MRC said the area around Lao capital Vientiane was suffering from “even wider extreme drought conditions and considerably low rainfall.”
Tributaries in central Laos including the Vientiane area are estimated to account for 19 percent of Mekong flows, it said. The area around Takeo province in southwest Cambodia is experiencing moderate drought.
The MRC usually issues flood warnings at this time of year.
In Cambodia, the Tonle Sap lake, which meets the Mekong in Phnom Penh, usually begins to flood as the lake fills. To date, that has not happened and water levels are about a third of normal.
About 400 dams are planned for the mainstream of the Mekong and its tributaries. Most are in China but authorities in both countries deny the dams are impacting on downstream water levels. That contradicts scientific reports and warnings that food security is now a major issue, with about 70 million people depending on the LMB for their livelihoods and nutrition.
Soil erosion is also looming as an issue as dams hold back sediment needed to replenish banks.
The drought has also taken a toll on the 850 fish species in the LMB. Many, like the Irrawaddy Dolphin and the giant catfish, are endangered. Some fish have had to be transported to deeper pools after becoming trapped in mud puddles.
“Floods and drought have hit our region hard lately and require stronger regional collaboration,” MRC secretariat chief executive An Pich Hatda said as the MRC released its annual report last month.
“The countries along the Lower Mekong need to step up their collective efforts in addressing the problems facing them now and in the future — for example, by ensuring transparency, quality and timeliness in water data sharing.”