The Mekong: Diverse, Magnificent, Threatened

by Aviva Imhof
Friday, June 1, 2007

As it makes its journey from the Tibetan Plateau to the South China Sea, the Mekong River is a changing kaleidoscope of cultures, geography and plant and animal life. From a small trickle in Tibet, the river quickly gathers steam and carves magnificent gorges through Yunnan Province of China. It then turns into what it remains for most of the rest of its journey: a fast-flowing, meandering waterway that forms the heart and soul of mainland Southeast Asia.

During its passage through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, the Mekong bursts with color and life. One hundred different ethnic groups live in the Mekong Basin and their livelihoods and cultures are intimately connected with the river’s natural cycles. The river boasts one of the world’s most diverse and productive inland fisheries, supplying the people of the region with about 80% of their protein needs. Whether it’s the Great Lake of Cambodia (the country’s fish basket) or the tropical wetlands of the Mekong Delta (the rice bowl of Vietnam), the river sustains the people and ecosystems of the region.

Yet this beautiful, dynamic and thriving river system is under threat. While the people living along the banks of the river see the Mekong as a resource to be nourished and sustained for future generations, governments and powerful foreign interests are greedily eyeing the Mekong’s vast development potential. Where the people see a free flowing river of life, governments and dam builders see a cascade of hydroelectric dams to power the cities of Thailand and Vietnam.

The next decade is critical for the future of the Mekong. The region is riddled with  undemocratic and corrupt governments who seem intent on pushing forward scores of dams on the Mekong mainstream and tributaries. China is building a cascade of eight dams on the Upper Mekong in Yunnan Province. Two of these projects have already been completed, and at least three more are under construction. The projects are already having an impact on water levels and fisheries in Northern Thailand and Laos, where people are reporting a 50% decline in fish catch since the second dam, Dachaoshan, was completed in 2003. Once the bigger projects in the cascade are operational, we can expect to see far-reaching downstream impacts.

Laos, which contributes about a third of the Mekong’s flow, is undergoing a dam building boom. In its bid to become “the battery of Southeast Asia,” the government has signed deals with foreign investors to build more than 30 dams on Mekong tributaries, and is even considering two projects on the mainstream. Power from these projects would be sold to neighboring Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. While not all of these projects will get the green light, Laos’ hydropower gold rush will have grim consequences for Laotian villagers and the Mekong river ecosystem, which can illafford a series of poorly planned projects.

Vietnam is also building dam cascades on several Mekong tributaries, the impacts of which are being experienced by ethnic minorities living in Vietnam and Cambodian villagers living downstream. Cambodia, which is essentially a floodplain, is also hoping to build dams on Mekong tributaries and the mainstream. The result of all these dams would be death by a thousand cuts to the river’s rich fisheries and the people who depend upon them. The Mekong River is still a thriving ecosystem, and it’s not too late to protect it.

IRN is working with a growing movement in the region to challenge dam plans and promote more sensible options for meeting the region’s energy needs. As you will read from the articles in this special issue, there are hopeful developments in the basin. A growing movement in Vietnam is investigating the impacts of dams and promoting energy alternatives. In Cambodia, efforts to protect the Tonle Sap Lake are gaining ground. And in Thailand, civil society is pushing for real alternatives that would meet Thailand’s energy needs while avoiding imported hydropower and new fossil fuel plants.

We at IRN believe that the Mekong region can be developed while protecting its greatest asset: the river. What remains to be seen is whether governments and multilateral development banks have the courage to promote a new way forward: a way that combines effective protection of the river basin with prosperity for the river basin’s 60 million inhabitants.