July 31, 2019 | National Geographic
A SEVERE DROUGHT that has caused water levels in Southeast Asia’s Mekong River to drop to their lowest in more than 100 years could have devastating consequences for fish, as well as the tens of millions of people living and working along the river, experts warn.
The crisis began when critical monsoon rains, which usually start in late May in the Mekong region, failed to arrive. Dry conditions, driven by the El Niño weather phenomenon and exacerbated by climate change, persisted well into July. At that time, observers say, the situation was made worse by hydropower dam operators upstream, in China and Laos, withholding water for their own purposes.
Although the rains finally began to fall in the last week in much of the river basin, with water levels now slowly rising, experts warn that the potential damage from the drought could be worse than in 2016, when another drought caused forest fires around Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia and widespread disruptions to food production.
Many rice farmers in the region have been unable to plant their main crop, raising fears of a heavily diminished harvest this fall. Less water flow could also have a devastating impact on fish reproduction in the Mekong River basin. This is normally the time when fish use rising water levels as a cue to spawn and to disperse their young, but there is little evidence of this happening so far this year.
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