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 from its source deep in China’s Tsinghai
Province through the eastern part of Tibet. From Yunnan province,
it becomes the border between Myanmar and Laos, and between Laos
and Thailand. From there it surges across Cambodia to Phnom Penh,
where the Bassac River branches off. The two rivers continue to
divide into nine outlets, the Cuu Long (Nine Dragons) of Vietnam’s
Mekong Delta, and finally discharge into the East Sea. The
river is navigable from the delta to Southern Laos, where massive
waterfalls near the Cambodian border prevent boats from travelling
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 from 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.
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
from upstream water use is already having a significant impact on
downstream agriculture. Upstream pollution flows
with the river , respecting no borders.
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 from
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