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River Residents Watch as Mekong Shrinks

Chea Veoung, a 32-year-old farmer in Kampong Cham province, looked desperately at the bank of the Mekong River recently, noting that a severe drop in its level was costing him three times as much in fuel just to irrigate his fields.

“When the level gets so low, [the pump] consumes about 20 liters” of fuel, he said.

Without the pumped water, Chea Veoung’s rice fields, about 400 meters from the river in Stung Trang district, would dry up.

The Mekong has reached record lows in recent weeks, creating transportation issues and water shortages for millions who depend on the river, many Cambodians among them.

Cambodians like Ly Ysa, a fisherman in norther Kroch Chhmar district, who has seen his nets coming up emptier.

“The river becomes lower and lower, so the fish cannot come up here,” he said with a sigh. “When the water level is deep, I can catch a good number, but this year I hardly get enough to make my own fish paste.”

Villagers have surely noticed the lower levels, but they don’t agree on how it has happened. Many blamed deforestation, or changes in nature. But environmentalists say dams on the upper Mekong, especially in China, are the cause.

“Dam construction upstream in the Mekong River is a major contributor to the low water level,” Chhit Sam Ath, executive director for the NGO Forum, a consortium of groups, told VOA Khmer. “It affects the flow of the river and marine life, and also fish migration.”

About 10 dams are under construction on the river, with a few already operational in China, which is not a member of the Mekong River Commission.

Eleven other dam projects are planned on the Mekong in downstream countries Cambodia, Laos Thailand and Vietnam, all of which are members of the commission, which meets this week in Thailand.

More than 20 million people living along the Mekong River are reportedly facing water shortages this dry season. Some Mekong countries have appealed to citizens to save water as the drought continues.

Cambodia has made no such appeal, but residents along the river are already concerned.

“In the future, I can say that there may be no more water for use, as more and more sand grows in the river,” Nguon Sry, a farmer in Kroch Chhmar, said recently. “If the river gets so much lower and lower every year, there will be no water, I can say that.”

Leaders of the Mekong nations are meeting in Hua Hin, Thailand, this week to find ways to better manage the river and reduce conflicts between upstream and downstream countries over water.

China and Burma, both non-members of the MRC, will be dialogue partners during the meeting.

Pich Dun, secretary general of the National Mekong River Committee, said by phone Wednesday the MRC governments will urge better management of the river.

“We will ask China to give us information on the closing and opening of its dam water gates, so we can predict the possible effects,” he said. “That it makes it easy for us to plan Mekong development downstream.”

Cambodia will also ask Laos to table a dam project on the border until each country can study its impacts.

Tek Vannara, a researcher for the Culture and Environment Preservation Association, said all Mekong nations should make a single master plan for equal distribution of river resources to ensure the sustainability a river that is vital to the entire region.