Climate-caused drought has adversely affected the Mekong River in recent years, from the historic low flows of 2019-2021 to the rare “reverse flow” that has shrunk Cambodia’s vital Tonle Sap Lake. Water infrastructure development is also a contributing factor, impacting the natural flow with increased dry season flow and reduced flood season flow.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) and its upstream counterpart, the Lancang-Mekong Water Resources Cooperation Centre (LMC Water Centre) presented their first phase findings of a joint study on southeast Asia’s largest waterway at the 13th MRC Regional Stakeholders Forum held on October 5 in Lao’s Luang Prabang province, according to an October 9 press release.

“While we’ve conducted joint research before, this current effort truly shows a great commitment towards future cooperation between our two organisations,” stated MRC CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun.

The Joint Study on the Changing Pattern of Hydrological Conditions of the Lancang-Mekong River Basin and Adaptation Strategies, delivers key recommendations. One short-term suggestion is for neighbouring countries to collaboratively investigate the impacts of development and climate change on segments of their shared river. The report underscores the value of real-time data sharing on water storage levels and hydropower operations.

The study cites two primary factors affecting hydrological changes in the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB): natural elements like precipitation patterns, evaporation rates, soil properties and topography; and human-driven activities including infrastructure development and land-use changes. Both these elements dictate the quantity, distribution and timing of water within the basin.

This research initiative between the MRC and LMC water centre began in late 2019, building on previous collaborations. The study highlights the importance of data sharing, as climate change, along with related droughts and floods, become increasingly important in determining the basin’s hydrological conditions. It underscores the urgent need for sharing meteorological flow data, extending to tributaries and proposes an information-sharing platform under the LMC cooperation framework.

The MRC emphasised the necessity for increased storage in the Mekong to combat future climate challenges and for improved coordination of current storage operations.

The report’s recommendations, based on “sound science and common understanding,” include better water resource management, comprehensive drought and flood strategies, further joint studies and training plans for water policymakers and professionals.

The second phase of the study will address these recommendations, predict future hydrological shifts and propose strategies for states along the river to adapt to climate and demographic changes, while ensuring the basin’s sustainable management and growth.