A Splash of Good News for Mekong River Communities

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The mighty Mekong River.

After four years of low flows and drought, there is finally a glimmer of good news for the communities that rely on the Mekong River.

The first four months of 2022 were some of the wettest in several years, the result of increased rainfall and China releasing more water from its upstream dams, according to monitoring data of the Mekong River Commission (MRC).

These two factors combine to unleash greater flows of sediment and nutrients, which ought to boost fish supply, bolster agriculture and benefit some 70 million people who dwell in these riverine communities.

However, this positive development may also be fleeting: July could bring more drought to parts of the Lower Mekong River Basin, according to drought forecasting of the MRC, which is an intergovernmental organization comprised of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

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.

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

Indeed, according to MRC figures, water levels across the basin remain well below the 60-year average from 1961 to 2021 – and beneath the most recent decade of healthy flow, from 2008 to 2017.

Climate change, drought, and water infrastructure projects have created an “unprecedented challenge” for Southeast Asia, as Dr. Anoulak Kittikhoun, the CEO of the MRC Secretariat, 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.”

Moreover, last year, the traditional wet season had shortened from five months to four, from June–October to July–October. That’s what makes this replenishment of water so important. Of course, more precipitation also brings the risk of torrential rain and flash flooding – and danger to lives and property.

Yet, the numbers are still promising. MRC meteorological indicators show that from November 2021 to April 2022, the LMB was not only wetter than normal years – especially 2019 and 2020 – but the accumulated 2022 rainfall was above average by roughly 25%, basin-wide.

Upstream, for example, now that China provides dry-season data, in addition to its wet-season data, the Jinghong monitoring station shows meter heights that in March and April routinely exceeded those of last year.

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

At the Vientiane station, in the Laotian capital, water levels on 2 March and 11 May 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 Kompong Cham monitoring stations – increased between 0.66 and 2.22 meters. That was a rise of roughly 1.5 meters, compared with the same time period last year.

The MRC will continue to monitor the situation, as the transboundary agency entrusted to manage the river and promote responsible development. It’s also emerged as the region’s leading knowledge hub, disseminating vital data for the public, governments, and other interested parties.

“We send this daily forecasting to our four Member Countries and other relevant stakeholders, as an alert – for them to prepare accordingly,” says Wangpimool.