Vientiane, Lao PDR, 26th Feb 2010
The current water level on the mainstream Mekong River is significantly below average in Northern Lao PDR and Thailand. Levels at mainstream measuring stations at Chiang Saen, Chiang Khan, Luang Prabang, Vientiane and Nong Khai are below those that occurred in the low flow season of 1993, which followed the most extreme regional drought on record in 1992.
All mainstream water levels measured north of Stung Treng are significantly below the average for this time of year and are expected to decrease further for another month. Similarly, the river levels in Southwestern China have been at their lowest in 50 years, with water flowing at only half the level that would be considered normal for February.
Such low water levels on the mainstream Mekong are the result of drought conditions in Northern Thailand and Lao PDR and are part of a wider regional drought being experienced upstream in Yunnan Province in China. The 2009 flood season was drier than normal with wet season river levels in Vientiane for example being among the 5th lowest levels on record in the last 98 years.
Starting from that low base, analysis of the rainfall at selected hydrological stations in Yunnan, Chiang Saen and Luang Prabang has shown a consistent pattern of monthly precipitation significantly below average amounts since September 2009. For example the rainfall recorded at Chiang Saen, Thailand in November and December 2009 was only 20 mm compared to the long term average of 52mm for the same period and this has contributed to the low river flow. The very low water levels recorded at monitoring stations in the mainstream between Chiang Saen and Nong Khai show that tributaries in Laos and Thailand are not feeding as much water into the mainstream as would be expected. For instance, this can be seen with the Nam Khan River that flows into the Mekong at Luang Prabang. Water levels in the Nam Khan are the lowest for fifty years.
The implications of these low water levels are serious for the people of Northern Lao PDR and Thailand. Severe drought will have an impact on agriculture, food security, access to clean water and river transport and will affect the economic development of people already facing serious poverty. The northern provinces are amongst the poorest areas for both Lao PDR and Thailand.
River tour operators have stopped offering services on the stretch of river between Houiesay and Luang Prabang in Laos and it has been reported that Yunan provincial authorities have halted the operation of Chinese cargo boats which will affect regional trade. The National Centre for Environmental Health and Water Supply in Lao PDR has started advising people to counter the effects of drought by reducing water consumption.
The MRC is undertaking more detailed assessments of the low flow conditions and is working with its Member Countries to closely monitor the drought situation as well as integrating drought management considerations into its climate change adaptation initiative. See more information on Mekong River water monitoring.
The MRC is the intergovernmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. In dealing with this challenge, the commission looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society.
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