Climate change, drought, and upstream dams have led to record low water levels on the Mekong River, according to experts, who say the shortage is significantly harming Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake and the surrounding fishing communities who rely on it to earn a living.
The water gauge on the Mekong at the port of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, which lies only several hundred meters from where water from the river flows to the Tonle Sap Lake, is currently registering levels of 13 feet below average for late July and lower than last year’s record, according to local media reports.
Traditionally, heavy rains during the June-October wet season push water from the Mekong River into the Tonle Sap Lake via the 70-mile-long Tonle Sap River which reverses its flow during the November to May dry season, draining the lake into the Mekong. The Tonle Sap would normally increase its level by four times during the monsoon season.
Mao Hak, deputy secretary-general of the Tonle Sap Authority, recently told RFA’s Khmer Service that the water level of the lake is extremely low because changing weather patterns have delayed the annual reversal of the flow of the Tonle Sap River.
“We know that this year’s climate change has caused the level of the water to remain low,” he said.
“There is not much precipitation on the Mekong River and the two bodies of water are related. That is why the Tonle Sap Lake is experiencing such a low level of water.”
While the lake levels are low, Mao Hak said that so far “we haven’t experienced any serious water shortage” and water consumption “remains normal.”
The deputy-secretary general would not comment on claims by some experts that hundreds of upstream dams on the Mekong between China and Laos are also contributing to record lows on the river because of restrictions on water flow, but he said that he expects the Tonle Sap River’s flow reversal to occur sometime in mid-August.
Brian Eyler, a senior fellow and director of the Washington-based Stimson Center’s Southeast Asia program, told RFA a major drought affecting the region since January 2019 threw the timing of the reversal off beginning last year, which has dropped the lake to uncharacteristically low levels.
“This results in distress for fishing communities along the Tonle Sap as well as a lowered fish catch,” he said.
“How much lower that fish catch is really needs to be studied, but I agree that anecdotal reports from last year and this year also show that fish catches per community are down 80 to 90 percent.”
No fish to catch
Long Sochet, a fisherman and the head of the Tonle Sap Fishing Community Alliance, said the decreased catch has battered residents—particularly those who live on floating villages on the lake and have no other means to support themselves.
“With such a…