Mekong ’s water levels have serious repercussions

Poovenraj Kanagaraj

Better cooperation urged between countries over hydropower plans and management

Better cooperation urged between countries over hydropower plans and management

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Cambodia’s most notable body of water, the Mekong River has been the source of jobs for hundreds in the agriculture, fishery and transportation sectors.

While the river has been a crucial part of the Cambodian ecosystem, recent changes in water levels are alarming for many.

The Mekong water levels during the early flood season during the period of June to July were among the lowest on record, falling below their historical long-term minimum levels.

According to the Mekong River Commission Secretariat (MRCS), based on their analysis and available information, several key factors contribute to the low water level in the Mekong river basin.

The commission points out that insufficient rainfall is one.

A shortage of rain has been recorded over the basin has been recorded since the beginning of the year. The Mekong region like many parts of the world is also affected by the El Nino climate phenomenon which causes extreme heat and insufficient rain.

Another factor the commission points out is the low flow of water from China. The amount of water flowing from Jinghong dam in China is considered to be a potential contribution to this.

According to a notification from China, between July 5 and July 19, the amount of water flowing out from the Jinghong dam in Yunnan province was fluctuating from 1,050 to 1,250 cubic metres per second (m3/s) to 504 to 600 m3/s because of “grid maintenance”.

Furthermore, the drier-than-average weather conditions in July over parts of southern ASEAN also contributed to the drop. For instance, Thailand, Laos and Myanmar were some of the countries hit by a similar crisis.

Overall, the water levels are forecast to drop for the next few days until Sept 23. For instance, water levels at the Phnom Penh Port are expected to be 7.52m while the water levels in Kampong Cham are expected to be 13.17m. In Strung Treng, the water levels are forecast to fall to 7.6m.

Low water levels

The repercussions for instance have had an impact on crops, fisheries as well as transportation.

The decreasing water levels on a yearly basis have had an impact on the river cruise line business.

The MRCS says there would be a problem for waterway transport because of shallow water for navigation and it would be difficult for fish to spawn.

Naidah Yazdani, the Asian director for CroisiEurope, Europe’s largest river cruise line that runs the Compagnie Du Fluviale cruises in the Mekong voices his concern on the impact caused by the decreasing water levels every year.

In this case, the businesses operating in the Mekong River would have to change their cruise schedules because the low levels of water results in just a small window of dates in the calendar when the ships are able to reach Siem Reap.

In dire situations, bus transfers sometimes have to be made on certain days of the cruise trip because the river has insufficient water.

It is also expected that there would be problems with saltwater intrusion and lack of freshwater for people living in the delta and some other parts of the basin where rainfall can be inconsistent in different areas.

A possibility for the decrease in mangrove productivity, growth and seedling survival would occur as well, something that may lead to a change to indigenous species favouring more salt-tolerant creatures.

The lack of freshwater could severely affect fish catches and riverbank plantations. The reduced water flow could also affect the expanding unsaturated soil potentially causing bank erosion and even more brackishness.

According to the secretariat, the Tonle Sap lake could experience a spillover effect through a lesser or later reversed flow into it which could result in the same impact on mangroves as well.

Flow direction depends on rainfall and the opening of dams.

Rethinking hydropower dams

In terms of hydropower dams, the MRCS believes that countries need to rethink hydropower planning and operations in the region.

Information sharing about dam operations is regarded to be a crucial part in preventing further negative repercussions.

Open timely cooperation on the management of hydropower cascades is becoming increasingly important as more and more hydropower projects are proposed for the Mekong mainstream and important tributaries especially at a time of climate change.

Furthermore, the MRCS explains that coordinating the storage and release of water across the basin is essential to ensure that the needs of water users are met and that harmful conditions, such as abnormally low flow, are avoided.

The commission urges member countries to follow through on their commitment to cooperate on water use in the basin and to keep the Mekong flowing.

Ham Oudom, the country coordinator for Earth Rights International, is reported to have said countries such as China and Laos need to consult and commit to come up with suitable meaningful resolution mechanisms.

The MRCS member countries have also agreed to update the Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy which was first adopted in 2001.

The updated strategy emphasises the need for cooperation between all member states, as well as dialogue partners China and Myanmar, on the planning and operations of the current and proposed dams.

It aims to establish a process for operation coordination and management of hydropower cascades.

Long-term solutions

The MRCS member countries have currently committed to establishing a joint environmental monitoring programme as well as to updating the MRCS’ Preliminary Design Guidance for Proposed Mainstream Dams and its Sustainable Hydropower Development Strategy.

The decision to formulate the programme was made by the committee members of the MRCS after the need for more accurate information on the environmental impacts from the first two Mekong mainstream dams, Xayaburi and Don Sahong, arose.

The programme aims to monitor environmental indicators, including flow alterations, across the entire lower Mekong basins as well as set out to support the MRCS member countries to establish formal coordination mechanisms for information sharing.

The preliminary design guidance to provide member sountries with advice on how to develop mainstream dams in line with their commitments made in the 1995 Mekong Agreement is currently in the process of being updated.

The agreement aims to optimise the multiple use and mutual benefits of riparian water use, while protecting the environmental and ecological balance of the basin.

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