Existing gauging networks are sparse and not readily available in real-time over the transboundary Lancang–Mekong River (LMR) basin, making it difficult to accurately identify drought. In this study, we aimed to build an operational real-time Lancang–Mekong drought monitor (LMDM), through combining satellite real-time data and the Variable Infiltration Capacity (VIC) hydrological model at a 0.25° spatial resolution. Toward this, three VIC runs were conducted: (1) a 60-year (1951–2010) historical simulation driven by Princeton’s global meteorological forcing (PGF) for yielding ‘normal’ conditions (PGF-VIC), wherein the VIC was calibrated with 20-year observed streamflow at six hydrological stations; (2) a short-period (2011–2014) simulation to bridge the gap between the historical and the real-time modeling; (3) the real-time (2015–present) simulation driven by bias-corrected satellite data, wherein the real-time soil moisture (SM) estimate was expressed as percentile (relative to the ‘normal’) for drought monitoring. Results show that VIC can successfully reproduce the observed hydrographs, with the Nash–Sutcliffe efficiency exceeding 0.70 and the relative bias mostly within 15%. Assessment on the performance of LMDM shows that the real-time SM estimates bear good spatial similarity to the reference, with the correlation coefficient beyond 0.80 across >70% of the domain. In terms of drought monitoring, the LMDM can reasonably reproduce the two recorded droughts, implying extreme droughts covering the Lower LMR during 2004/05 and widespread severe 2009/10 drought across the upper domain. The percentage drought area implied by the LMDM and the reference is close, corresponding to 66% and 60%, 43% and 40%, and 44% and 36% for each typical drought month. Since January 2015, the LMDM was running in an operational mode, from which the 2016 unprecedented drought was successfully identified in Mekong Delta. This study highlights the LMDM’s capability for reliable real-time drought monitoring, which can serve as a valuable drought early warning prototype for other data-poor regions.
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