Water levels in lower Mekong basin at historic lows despite the onset of the rainy season

Water levels in the lower Mekong basin are at historic lows according to government and watchdog data despite the onset of the rainy season in South East Asia.

According to data provided by the Mekong River Commission, the water level in Nakhon Phanom was at 2.04 metres on Thursday, well under the mid-June average of 4.05 metres.

It is the lowest water level recorded in the last 20 years.

Other provinces across North-Eastern Thailand are reporting similar low levels.

“The colour of the Mekong is usually red because of sediment flow but this is the first year in more than 20 years where we have had crystal clear water,” said Peach Likhitsuwan, a business owner in Nakhon Phanom who employs farmers and fishermen. “It means the water is not flowing.”

According to Peach, compared to other years, the water level is significantly lower and there has been hardly any rainfall in the past month.

Experts say that unless there is increased rainfall or increased water discharge into the Mekong, farmers and fisheries will bear the brunt of the consequences come dry season.

The water level in Nakhon Phanom town as of June 2020 [Photo Credit: Peach Likhitsuwan]

Climate Change

According to the Mekong River Commission, the region faces “increasing risk from extreme weather events.” These conditions are likely exacerbated by the knock-on effects of climate change and the MRC says that international cooperation is needed to fight back not only against such occurrences but longer-lasting climate events like drought and flooding.

“Boosting regional efforts to provide faster and more accurate forecasting on flood and drought and to expand a network of hydro-meteorological monitoring to collect data in the basin are critical in addressing these issues,” the MCR said in its annual report released this week.

Severe drought within the region over the past several years have caused “substantial” economic losses. A massive drought in Thailand in 2016 caused an estimated $1.7 billion in economic damages.

In this aerial file photo taken on October 31, 2019 shows Mekong River in Pak Chom district in the northeastern Thai province of Loei with Laos side seen at left. (Photo by Lillian SUWANRUMPHA / AFP)

The China factor

According to the MRC report and a previous study done by the Eyes on Earth NGO in April, the damming of the upper Mekong by China has exacerbated and precipitated drought conditions downstream.

“The severe lack of water in the Lower Mekong during the wet season of 2019 was largely influenced by the restriction of water flowing from the upper Mekong during that time,” said the Eyes on Earth study in April.

The MRC said in its report, released this week, that China and other Mekong countries must show more transparency in their water data to ensure that those living on the Mekong can fight back against any eventuality.

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