The Mekong River Commission (MRC) on March 31 unveiled the first water-level monitoring station near the top of the Lower Mekong River Basin, in Long district of Laos’ Luang Namtha province.

The station is a “part of a broader MRC plan to reduce vulnerability for millions of Southeast Asians, whose lives and livelihoods downstream are too easily affected by a sudden, unexpected flow of water”, the inter-governmental organisation said in an April 1 statement.

“The new monitoring station at Xieng Kok, which sits on Lao PDR’s northern border with Myanmar, will require the sort of cooperation that the MRC has long advocated. In this case, Myanmar has an opportunity to jointly collect data with Laotian colleagues about water discharge – which will then be quickly accessible to the millions living downstream.

“That should enable them to adapt accordingly, like the farmers planning to harvest crops or fishermen relying on the river for their daily catch,” the MRC said.

Map of water monitoring stations in LMB. MRC

At the March 31 handover ceremony, MRC Secretariat CEO Anoulak Kittikhoun noted that the station would record water flows from the Upper Mekong River – known as Lancang in China – which ends some 130km upstream from the facility, according to the statement.

“This is a strategic monitoring station,” he was quoted as saying. “If there’s any change – due to water release, closing a gate, or sudden rainfall – we’ll know almost immediately. With greater capabilities, we can provide more information to our Member Countries and local communities.

“However, this also requires every country to share more information about dam operations.”

The MRC noted that construction of the Xieng Kok station, much like many other new monitoring facilities, slipped behind schedule due to the pandemic, which it said “slowed the delivery of crucial supplies and spare parts”.

However, it added, with the commission’s four member countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – pushing to enhance monitoring and forecasting capabilities in the region, “more of these stations are now operational”.

“For far too long, denizens of the Lower Mekong River Basin have been vulnerable to the whims of water flow, whether it was human-made or caused by nature. Villages might be flooded from one moment to the next, with disastrous consequences for the families living there,” the statement said.

From 2008-2012, 49 stations were built along the Mekong and its tributaries to continuously record rainfall and water levels, under the first phase of the Mekong Hydrological Cycle Observing System Project (HYCOS), it said.

Through financing provided by Agence Francaise de Developpement (AFD), the development arm of the French government, twelve of these were built in each of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, 11 in Thailand and two in southern China, it added.

MRC said that through the HYCOS, expansion and upgrades, the number of monitoring stations will “soon” reach 56 along the Mekong proper. “So far, in Cambodia, the MRC has completed one new station and refurbished another.”

It added that “each monitoring station is today equipped with a cutting-edge ‘telemetry’ system, which transmits current water levels and rainfall data every 15 minutes – first to a central database at the MRC Secretariat, then disseminated to the member countries.”

At the ceremony, Lao Vice-Minister of Natural Resources and Environment of Lao Chanthanet Boualapha said: “By installing these stations on our territory, we hope to send a message that we’re stepping up to play our part in Mekong River management and effective future forecasting.

“Let’s all consider how such collaboration benefits the entire region and our people.”

Ro Vannak, co-founder of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said on April 3 that all Mekong dependant countries will benefit from this monitoring station, providing the data is shared transparently and accountably. He said China still plays an important role in Mekong River.

“Whether China will be willing to consider the circumstances of countries on the Lower Mekong is still a question. China has constructed many hydropower facilities on the upper part of the river, which are alleged to have causing changes to the ecology and water levels of the Mekong. It’s like China controls the faucet to the Mekong,” he said.

Vannak suggested that more monitoring stations be constructed along the Mekong.