Phnom Penh (dpa) - The river bed on the Chroy Changvar peninsula hardly has any water, garbage piles in the muddy ground.

The fisherman Ho San stands next to his wooden boat and looks at the point where the Tonle Sap River flows into the legendary Mekong.

“You can tell from the mud where the water normally goes,” says Ho San. “We have never seen the water level so low.

We will go hungry », said the 31-year-old Cambodian.

For the second year in a row, the people on the Mekong are experiencing a devastating drought.

The electricity that flows through half a dozen countries in Southeast Asia is of vital importance for the food and livelihood of an estimated 60 million people.

The river meanders through China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam for around 4,350 kilometers.

From the Himalayas through gorges and plains to the Mekong Delta and from there into the South China Sea.

It is one of the most powerful rivers on the planet and is longer than the Danube and Rhine combined.

Influenced by the El Niño weather phenomenon, however, the amount of precipitation has recently dropped massively, especially in the lower Mekong Basin: From January to July, precipitation fell just 397 millimeters.

That is 36 percent less than in the same period in 2019 and a dramatic 62 percent less than in 2018.

In Cambodia, people are particularly feeling the persistent drought as a result of climate change.

Ironically, the Tonle Sap - the largest lake in Southeast Asia, which is considered the “fish factory” of the Mekong - is in danger.

It is also popular with day trippers visiting the Angkor temples a little further north.

Many make a day trip to the “floating villages” built on stilts in the lake.

The lake's water level is currently at an all-time low.

The numerous species of fish that live in the region's waters include various catfish, snakehead fish, and carp.

But stocks are shrinking.

And despair grows.

His catches have already halved, says the fisherman Salas Vel (62).

He has little hope for the future.

Triggered by the drought, this year, for the second time in a row, a unique natural phenomenon that is equally important for humans and animals has been delayed by months: in the monsoon season that starts between May and June, the Mekong swells violently.

Its water then rushes with force into the Tonle Sap River - which then changes its direction of flow.

As a result, not only the basins of the Tonle Sap Lake are flooded, but also the surrounding plains and forests.

At the end of the rainy season in September, if everything goes smoothly, a third of Cambodia's arable land should be covered by water.

This is also important for the vital rice cultivation.

In 2020 and 2019, however, the change of direction did not begin until August, months later than usual.

"Normally the water runs into the lakes and ponds so that the fish can breed, but now that can no longer happen," says Fischer Vel.

The daily driving out on the lake becomes more and more frustrating for those who come back with empty nets.

«Fishermen who have some money bought tuk-tuks in order to have an income as drivers.

Others work in construction.

But we who have no money have to hold out somehow. "

It is not only climate change and drought that are troubling Cambodians and the rest of the Mekong, but also China.

The People's Republic has built almost a dozen dams on its territory and draws electricity from the mighty river.

The other countries are virtually turned off - Beijing controls the electricity.

This is one of the reasons why its sensitive ecology threatens to tip over and to counter a disaster.

And more dams are planned.

The result: fewer and fewer nutrient-rich sediments reach the lower Mekong region and the Tonle Sap Lake.

But they are extremely important for the biodiversity and fertility of the region.

Regional analyst Carl Thayer is convinced that, despite all the criticism of its dealings with the Mekong, China will hardly show complete transparency, especially if “the data show that the states downstream are disadvantaged”.

The Chinese dam management makes sense for the People's Republic, but ignores the bigger picture, warns Courtney Weatherby, Southeast Asia analyst at the Stimson Center think tank.

Another factor that affects the Mekong and its neighbors is excessive sand mining.

This causes the banks to erode, they lose stability.

Fields are then torn into the water as well as residential houses.

But sand - one of the main components of concrete - is becoming an increasingly popular raw material due to the global building boom.

Marc Goichot, WWF freshwater systems expert, is convinced that all of these problems, taken together, will contribute to irreversibly changing the Mekong.

"Once you've reached a certain threshold, it's too late to turn back," he warns.

"The flow will adapt to it, but it will be a different flow and the whole relationship with it will have to be reinvented."

And that could come with enormous costs for the most vulnerable.

The situation is frightening, says the expert.

There are solutions, but governments and intergovernmental organizations need to respond immediately.

"We are in a very deep crisis and we have to act now, not next year."

© dpa-infocom, dpa: 200921-99-644973 / 4