Pic:Â A trench dug into a dry riverbed in seacrh for water in the area aroundÂ Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake in May
Cambodia, May 10, 2016:Â The dry months before the monsoon rains arrive are often tough for Cambodian fishermen and farmers. But with rivers drying up and drinking water running out, conditions have rarely been as bad as they are now.
The current drought is linked toÂ El NiÃ±o, which has been disrupting weather patterns around the world. But the harsh conditions today might only be foreshadowing far worse to come. Climate change will continue to affect the Mekong Basin region, while future droughts are expected to be exacerbated by a string of major hydropower dam projects.
Experts fear that the present crisisÂ could become the new normal for Cambodia and its neighbours, which have also been hit hard by record temperatures and a long period of extremely dry weather.
â€œThe combined effects of drought, climate change and dam building are pushing the resources of the Mekong Basin to the brink of disaster,â€ said Maureen Harris, Southeast Asia programme director of the river protection organisation, International Rivers.
In Cambodia, water shortages are reported in 18 of 25 provinces and more than 93,500 poor, rural households are affected by the drought, according to the European Commissionâ€™s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department. They include residents of â€œfloatingÂ villagesâ€ on theÂ TonlÃ© SapÂ Lake, which is fed by tributaries of the Mekong.
â€œThis year is terrible. We cannot find any fish. No one is helping us, and we are almost starving,â€ said Kreun Phear, a fisherman who lives in Chong Pra Lay,Â a village built on the edge of the lake.
In the dry season, the village appears much like any other; but when the lake swells up to four times its usual size during the monsoon, the houses are designed to float on empty fuel drums. The lake and surrounding rivers provide Kreun Phear’s community and many like it with everything: food, water, and their livelihoods.
According to the government’s Fisheries Action Coalition Team, the lake is currently just 50 centimetres deep, compared to its usual depth of between 1.2 and 1.5 metres at the same time in previous years.
Talking about the drought, Youk Senglong, FACT’s deputy director, told IRIN that Cambodia has â€œnever experienced a natural disaster like thisâ€.
The disaster is also severely affecting Cambodiaâ€™sÂ neighbours.
In Thailand, farmers are struggling with drought and 21 people have died during a heat wave, while about two million people are short of drinking water in Vietnam. The low level of the river has also allowed saltwater to penetrate further upstream in Vietnamâ€™s Mekong Delta region than normal, and 10 percent of the countryâ€™s rice paddies have been destroyed, according to the UN.
The UN says the Mekong is at its lowest level since records began nearly 100 years ago. The waters are almost half as high as the average level for this time of year.
Thatâ€™s bad news for about 60 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin region, of whom 80 percent depend on the river for food and livelihoods, according to International Rivers.
Climate conditions are largely responsible, but not entirely. The water level has also been affected by an explosion of dam building on the Mekong river, which snakes through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
There are six dams on Chinaâ€™s upper section of the Mekong already, and communities downstream have felt their impact, according toÂ Harris of International Rivers. The organisation says that 11 more dams are planned on the Mekong downstream from China, including two in Cambodia, and the rest in Laos where two are already under construction.