Children walk along the Mekong river in Phnom Penh
PHNOM PENH — Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen dismissed concerns Wednesday that Chinese dams were responsible for the Mekong River's low water levels, telling environmentalists not to be "too extreme".
Hun Sen blamed decades-low water levels in southeast Asia's longest river on "irregular rainfall" caused by global climate change.
The so-called "Mighty Mekong" dropped to its lowest level in 50 years in northern Thailand and Laos earlier this year, alarming communities who depend on the waterway for food, transport, drinking water and irrigation.
"That the Mekong River, or other rivers, have lower or higher levels of water depends on the rain," Hun Sen told reporters after a regional meeting with leaders from Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Myanmar.
"So please don't be too extreme about the environment and don't say hydropower dams cause water levels to drop in the lower Mekong. If you think that, it is a mistake."
China has eight planned or existing dams on the Mekong River, and rejects activists' claims that these have contributed to low water-levels downstream.
"There is no clear data-sharing from China on how they manage their Mekong dams, so they can still insist that they are not causing the problem," said Premrudee Daoroung from Bangkok-based environmental group TERRA.
"However, looking at northern Thailand, we can see the hydrology change is very abnormal and it be will hard for people there to keep believing that it is not because of the dams," she told AFP.
The Mekong River Commission (MRC) -- an intergovernmental advisory body representing Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam -- is currently studying the possible construction of 11 hydropower projects on the lower Mekong river.
Last month, the MRC released an influential report urging the four countries to delay any decisions about building dams for 10 years due to the many risks involved.
Environmental groups have long objected to damming the river, arguing that it would damage fragile ecosystems.
More than 60 million people rely in some way on the river, which is the world's largest inland fishery, producing an annual estimated catch of 3.9 million tonnes, according to the MRC.