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As Tonle Sap Dries Up, River Commission Urges More Data Sharing to Address Low Mekong Levels


Villagers are fishing in Tonle Sap Lake in Kampong Chhnang province’s Chhnuk Trou, on March 12, 2020. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

The Mekong River Commission asked countries along the waterbody to share data of falling water levels in the river, especially in light of the record dry conditions witnessed in the Tonle Sap Lake.

The river commission released a press release on Friday urging the six countries along the Mekong River to address record low water levels in the Mekong basin, the second straight year of falling water levels.

In Cambodia, the commission said the Tonle Sap Lake, which relies on reverse flows from the Mekong River during the wet season, has recorded lowest flows since 1997. The lake is critical as a source of fish, both for sustenance and livelihood, for the millions of Cambodians dependent on the lake.

“We call on the six Mekong countries to increase data and information sharing on their dam and water infrastructure operations in a transparent and speedy manner with the MRC. It is time to walk the talk and to act in the common interest of the entire Mekong River Basin and the affected communities,” said Dr. An Pich Hatda, the MRC secretariat’s chief executive officer.

Lao's Xayaburi electricity dam construction is expected to be completed in late 2019. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Lao's Xayaburi electricity dam construction is expected to be completed in late 2019. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

The Mekong River runs through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Cambodian government in mid-July released data to show low water levels in the Mekong, attributing the drop to climate change. But other experts, especially the U.S.-based Stimson Center, contend that Chinese hydropower dams have not released water despite good precipitation in the upper Mekong River.

Kol Vathana, deputy secretary-general of the Cambodia National Mekong Committee, said the main reason for decreasing Mekong water levels was climate change, and that the construction of upstream dams was only a “minor factor.”

“The dam has contributed recent low water levels, but it is not the only [factor],” he told VOA Khmer.

He said Cambodian authorities were now collecting data to send to the Mekong River Commission, adding that the commission members had asked China for similar data, but they hadn’t shared all the data.

“There is no law to press China to give [data]. We get only what they gave us,” he said.

The U.S.-based Stimson Center, which tracks development along the river, published in April new data showing that while the lower Mekong Basin was facing a severe drought, the upper basin had high rainfall and snowmelt, with China’s dams restricting nearly all of this record flow.

Villagers’ houses on Tonle Sap lake in Chhnuk Trou area of Kampong Chhnang province, on March 12, 2020. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)
Villagers’ houses on Tonle Sap lake in Chhnuk Trou area of Kampong Chhnang province, on March 12, 2020. (Sun Narin/VOA Khmer)

However, China’s Foreign Ministry dismissed the findings, saying it was “unreasonable” that Chinese dam construction along the river was causing droughts downstream.

Om Savath, the executive director of Fisheries Action Coalition Team, said the growing number of hydropower dams on the Mekong River can be the cause of the low water levels in the basin and can result in abnormal water flow to Tonle Sap Lake.

“Since there are several large hydropower dams on the Mekong River in China and so on, we see the water cycle has changed,” he said.

Chhuon Lan, a 45-year-old villager living along the Tonle Sap in Siem Reap province’s Kampong Phluk, echoed the concerns of falling water levels, which had affected fish numbers in the area.

“Now there is now water,” she said, adding that normally water levels used to rise in June, but levels were still low as of Friday.

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