Mekong: A river to watch as climate change impacts Asia’s water tower

Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

Calm now, turbulent tomorrow? View of Upper Mun Reservoir on the Mekong in northern Thailand: image courtesy TVE Asia Pacific

The Greater Himalaya region is known as the water tower of Asia: the continent’s nine largest rivers emerging from its ice-capped mountains provide 1.5 billion people with water and 3 billion people with their food and power.

With more ice stored here than anywhere outside the Arctic and Antarctic, the region has even been called the earth’s third pole. But the ice fields of the Himalayas are melting, and at a faster pace than anywhere else on the planet.

A river that is going to be affected is the Mekong – one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. TVE Asia Pacific has just produced a short film looking at how current and anticipated environmental changes could impact water users in the six countries of Southeast Asia which share its waters. We released it online this week, just in time for World Water Day 2009, March 22.

Mekong: Watch that River!

Along its journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres (3,000 miles), the Mekong nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path. Starting in the Tibetan highlands, it flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined. The basin supports more than 65 million people who share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

The Mekong has sustained life for thousands of years. But growing human demands are slowly building up environmental pressures on the river. A new study, commissioned by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), cautions that climate change could add to this in the coming years.

Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong

Fishing on the Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia: An 'ecological hot spot' on the Mekong

The study, carried out under a project named “Vulnerability Assessment of Freshwater Resources”, was headed by Dr Mukand Babel at the Asian Institute of Technology (AIT) in Bangkok. It probed how climate change can impact the river from the highlands to the delta….affecting the survival and prosperity of millions.

Dr Babel says on the film: “Climate change would affect…the amount of rainfall which is received. Under climate change conditions, we expect less rainfall to be observed and that would bring less flows in the river which would affect the water users in the downstream areas.”

He adds: “At the same time, the sea level rise which is an associated impact of climate change, would bring more sea water intrusion into the river systems and groundwater systems in the delta in Vietnam.”

Salt water could go upstream by 60 to 70 kilometres, degrading the land and water in the Mekong delta. This would add to pressures already coming from growing human numbers, expanding economies and disappearing forests.

So the Mekong will be affected at both ends, by different processes that are triggered by climate change.

To find out how these changes could affect the Mekong’s millions, my colleagues filmed in two
‘ecological hot spots’ in the river basin identified by the study: the Upper Mun River, a tributary of the Mekong, and the Tonlé Sap lake in Cambodia.

The UNEP-AIT study recommends Mekong river countries to improve how they manage their water and land. This needs better policies, institutions and systems.

Dr. Young-Woo Park, Regional Director, UNEP, says on the film: “Countries sharing the Mekong river…have to act together and they have to develop the policies on how to conserve and how to conserve the Mekong river and also how to properly manage the Mekong river.”

The study found the Mekong river basin ‘moderately vulnerable’ to environmental changes. There aren’t any major water shortages in this river basin as yet. For now, the Mekong is holding up despite many pressures.
But all this can change if less water is flowing down the river and the demand for water keeps growing.

That’s why we named this film ‘Mekong: Watch that River!’

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