MRC Mekong Monitoring Stations Will Better Protect Downriver Denizens

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More Mekong monitoring stations will better protect denizens downriver.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) on Friday unveiled the first water-level monitoring station to be positioned atop the Lower Mekong River Basin. 

The station is 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 new monitoring station at Xieng Kok, which sits on Laos’ 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.

During the 31 March handover ceremony, Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun – the MRC Secretariat CEO – explained the new station’s significance, as it will record water flow from the Upper Mekong River, which in China is known as the Lancang. That lies approximately 130 km from the station.

“This is a strategic monitoring station,” said Dr. Anoulak. “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.”

In fact, the Xieng Kok station is one of several new monitoring stations whose construction was delayed by Covid-19 – as it slowed the delivery of crucial supplies and spare parts. However, more of these stations are now operational as the four MRC Member Countries – Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam – push to improve the region’s monitoring and forecasting capabilities.

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.

From 2008 to 2012, the first phase of the Mekong Hydrological Cycle Observing System Project (HYCOS) saw 49 stations built along the river and its tributaries, to continuously measure rainfall and water levels. Twelve were built in each of Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, with 11 in Thailand and two more in Southern China – through which most of the river flows. Funding was provided by the French Development Agency (AFD).

Of the 49, 45 remained operational. Yet more were needed. Through HYCOS, expansion and upgrades will soon see a total of 56 stations along the Mekong, with an additional 13 on its tributaries, under Japan’s drought-management project, and two more under the MRC Joint Environment Monitoring Pilot Project.

So far, in Cambodia, the MRC has completed one new station and refurbished another. Laos has seen two stations refurbished, with two new stations built – including the Xieng Kok station. As Covid-19 delays ease, recently-completed stations are now also operational in Thailand and Vietnam.

Significantly, 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.

The goal is not only to warn millions of people about sudden changes, but to equip the four MRC governments with enough information to craft effective policies that benefit their riparian societies.

At the Xieng Kok launch ceremony, the Laotian alternate member of the MRC Council – Vice Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Chanthanet Boualapha – while also thanking donors and partners, described his country’s motivations.

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