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The Mekong River

The Mighty Mekong River

The Mekong River, the ‘Mother of Waters’, is the heart and soul of mainland South-East Asia. Millions of people depend on its waters. It’s a way of life, a home for the spirits, the defining element in the everlasting battle for survival, and the foundation and boundaries of cultures and kingdoms across eons. The river speaks of the past and the future, of the eternally recurring cycles of nature, of the people living upstream and downstream, of survival, beauty and danger.

The Mighty Mekong River
The Mighty Mekong River

It’s virtually impossible for foreigners to appreciate the role of the river in the lives of those who live in the Mekong basin. It influences every aspect of their daily existence, shaping not only the land, but also the people themselves.

The Mekong Basin extends over 795,000km2. More than 70 million people, 55 million of which inhabit the watershed area lying within Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Viet Nam, depend on the river and its tributaries for food, water and transport. At 4,350km, the Mekong is the longest river in Southeast Asia and the 12th longest in the world.

The river runs its source deep in China’s Tsinghai Province through the eastern part of Tibet. Yunnan province, it becomes the border between Myanmar and Laos, and between Laos and Thailand. there it surges across Cambodia to Phnom Penh, where the Bassac River branches off. 

The two rivers continue to divide nine outlets, the Cuu Long (Nine Dragons) of Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, and finally discharge the East Sea. The river is navigable the delta to Southern Laos, where massive waterfalls near the Cambodian border prevent boats travelling further.

Cuu Long River
Cuu Long River

About nine-tenths of the people in the Lower Mekong Basin are engaged in agriculture, mostly rice production on a massive scale, for which irrigation the Mekong River is essential. A substantial proportion is exported, thus providing the staple diet of a far greater number than just those living in the area. ​

The Mekong River is also very rich in fish, the single most important source of animal protein in the diet of people living in the Lower Mekong Basin.

The Looming Danger
The Mekong Basin is an intricate ecosystem. Its enormous size has made it resilient to human manipulation up to the present, but the threat of a system breakdown is looming. ​

Since the 1950s, nearly six thousand dams, reservoirs and irrigation schemes have been built in the Mekong system. So far, only one dam spans the Mekong mainstream, but another is under construction: both are in Yunnan Province in China.

The cumulative impact of upstream activities is having a profound impact upon the Lower Mekong Basin. The dams have reduced peak floods during filling stage, fragmented aquatic habitats and blocked fish spawning and nursery areas to migratory species.

The Mekong River Delta
The Mekong River Delta

For example, Vietnam is concerned about the danger of increased seawater in the fertile Mekong Delta if the dry season water level drops. River transport, vital for Cambodia but also important for the other riparian countries, is badly affected by falling water levels. ​

The availability of fish is sensitive to both downstream and upstream water flow and water quality conditions, as many Mekong fish species migrate for great distances for spawning and feeding. Changes in Mekong River water levels resulting upstream water use is already having a significant impact on downstream agriculture. Upstream pollution flows with the river , respecting no borders.

A regional consensus is badly needed.

The Mekong Basin is entering uncharted territory, a phase of rapid development that may alter permanently the physical landscape, the integrity of its ecosystems and the quality of life of its people.

While the Mekong River and its related ecosystems are still largely healthy, the overall system is suffering alarming pressure. If the present rate of deterioration of forest cover, bio-diversity, fish stocks and soil quality, all key indicators of ecological health, continues, it’s likely that the effectiveness of the Mekong Basin system may decline to levels where recovery becomes impossible

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