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The Mekong rebounding from drought, MRC reports

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Children playing in the Mekong River in Phnom Penh in July of last year. Heng Chivoan

The Mekong rebounding from drought, MRC reports

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) warned that by July, drought conditions could prevail in western Cambodia, though soil moisture is showing significant improvement over 2020 and 2021.

After four straight years of reduced water flow in the Mekong River and a drought that caused hardship for fishing and farming families living along it, there is now a glimmer of hope for Southeast Asia’s largest waterway, it said in a press release on May 16, noting that the first four months of 2022 were the wettest in several years.

This was the result of increased rainfall and also from China releasing more water from its upstream dams, according to the monitoring data collected by the MRC.

These two factors combined to unleash greater flows of water – which also carries sediment and nutrients that ought to help boost the Kingdom’s fish population, bolster agriculture and benefit over 70 million people who dwell in these riverine communities.

However, these positive developments may also be fleeting victories. July could bring more drought to parts of the Lower Mekong River Basin, according to weather forecasting by the MRC.

“More specifically, while soil moisture now shows significant improvement over 2020 and 2021, by July drought conditions could strike northern and southern Laos, western Cambodia and the central highlands of Vietnam,” it said.

Winai Wangpimool, director of the MRC Technical Support Division, said: “This gives us hope that the Mekong is recovering and replenishing. Nevertheless, this doesn’t eliminate the risk of moderate drought.”

According to MRC figures, water levels across the basin remain well below the 60-year average recorded from 1961 to 2021 – and beneath the most recent 10-year period of healthier water flow, from 2008 to 2017.

Climate change, drought and water infrastructure projects have created an “unprecedented challenge” for Southeast Asia as MRC Secretariat CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun warned last month in his first “State of the Mekong Address”.

“Our wetlands are disappearing, nourishing sediment is reduced and rising salinity is spoiling rice crops,” he said.

Last year, the traditional wet season was shortened from five months to four and ran from July-October with little rain in June.

“That’s what makes the replenishment of water so important. Of course, more precipitation also brings the risk of torrential rain and flash flooding, which causes danger to lives and property,” according to the press release.

MRC meteorological indicators show that from November 2021 to April 2022, the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB) was not only wetter than normal years – especially 2019 and 2020 – but the accumulated 2022 rainfall was roughly 25 per cent above average, basin-wide.

The MRC stated that the upstream data that China is now providing to them during the dry-season indicates that China’s Jinghong monitoring station recorded water levels in March and April of this year that exceeded those of 2021.

At Thailand’s Chiang Saen – the second uppermost monitoring station in the LMB – the water level rose from 1.84m on March 2 to 3.25m by May 11. Those figures are lower than the 60-year average from 1961 to 2021, but notably higher than during the drought years of 2019-2021.

At the Vientiane station in the Lao capital, water levels from March 2 to May 11 even exceeded the 60-year average – and were significantly higher than those of 2019-2020.

“In Cambodia, meanwhile, water levels during the identical time period – along the stretch from the Stung Treng to Kampong Cham monitoring stations – increased between 0.66 and 2.22m, or a rise of roughly 1.5m compared with the same time-period last year,” noted the MRC.

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