Mekong dies. Is this the last chance to save one of Asia’s largest rivers?


The Indochina Peninsula has a serious problem with the steadily deteriorating state of the Mekong River. Publicists and environmentalists around the world are sounding the alarm – what is happening is taking the form of a massive environmental disaster, threatening millions of people in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Myanmar and China. The dire state of the river is influenced by, among other things. climate change, illegal fishing and hydroelectric power plants, especially numerous on the Chinese section of the river.

Mekong – the main vein of the Indochina Peninsula

The Mekong is 4880 kilometers long, making it the ninth largest river in the world. Its source is in the Tangla Mountains in the Tibetan Highlands. The Delta – a triangular plain located between Cambodia and Vietnam – occupies nearly 60,000. km2 in area. It is characterized by a dense population and highly developed agriculture. The waters of the river are tinted a dirty brown color, not due to pollution, but to various minerals carried downstream. It is thanks to them that the delta creates excellent conditions for cultivation and development, as well as for the socio-economic life of millions of people.

The Mekong supplies water to agricultural and urban areas – millions of people use it as a source of drinking water, to irrigate rice fields and other crops. Coastal communities depend on fishing. The river is home to a variety of fish species, which is an important cultural and economic aspect. The river is also a transportation route that allows goods and trade to be transported and people to move around. The river also has a prominent place in the religious cults and traditions of various ethnic groups in the region.

Mekong dies. Is this the last chance to save one of Asia's largest rivers? 1

Mekong and the economy

The Mekong River is an important source of water for agriculture, especially rice cultivation – one of the region’s main food products. All the countries of the Indochinese Peninsula, led by China, are among the world’s largest producers of this grain. A number of hydropower plants have been built along the Mekong to produce electricity for the region.

The International Energy Agency reports that demand in Southeast Asia continues to grow, and the Mekong has a fast flow, so it is valuable in this regard as well. Laos is pinning its hopes on building more dams and selling energy to neighboring countries and sees this as a way out of the economic crisis. The hydroelectric plants currently operating in China produce energy based on the river’s waters to the tune of approx. 4 billion dollars. annually. Nature is paying a huge price for this.

Why is the river’s situation getting worse?

The Mekong and its many tributaries constitute an important ecosystem with a very rich biodiversity. The delta of this river is known for its unique flora and fauna, including many endemic species. Globally unique ecosystems have been created here, such as the flooded forests in Sung Treng Province. The river is famous for the rapid flow of huge quantities of water – for this reason it is called “the mighty Mekong” or “the mother of all rivers” by locals. Unfortunately, water is getting scarcer every year. In 2019-2021, the level dropped to the lowest in more than 100 years. This is influenced by droughts and increasingly less intense rainy seasons.

The state of the river is heavily influenced by the numerous hydroelectric power plants operating on it. There are 11 of them on the main stem of the river, and as many as 95 on the tributaries. The hydroelectric power generated there supplies 80 percent of the country’s energy needs. demand of China’s Yunnan province. Laos has two power plants on the main stem of the river, but authorities there plan to build dozens more. True, the structures release the retained water, but analysts believe that temporarily confining it in concrete tanks has a devastating effect on the entire ecosystem.

It’s mainly about retaining the aforementioned mineral sediments, which are so important for the entire ecosystem and agriculture in the delta. The effects of this can also be seen from the number of fish. It has declined by as much as 87 percent in 17 years! The once-popular giant catfish in the region, one of the world’s largest freshwater fish, is on the verge of extinction. Similarly, the striped catfish and the trey riel, a fish so popular in the past that Vietnam’s currency was named after it. The Mekong River Commission reports that if no steps are taken, the amount of life-giving sediment will drop by as much as 90 percent by 2040.

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Can it still be saved?

Young residents of the Mekong’s waterfronts within Cambodia see the river’s progressive degradation and are trying to stop it. Faced with the construction of hydroelectric dams, they are helpless, just as they are with climate change. However, they are fighting other developments that are unfavorable to the river, especially uncontrolled fishing. Night patrols are a daily occurrence, looking for poachers fishing with electricity or dynamite. It is organized by the Cambodian Association for Culture and Environmental Protection. The dramatic situation of the Mekong is also beginning to be recognized by the authorities of the countries along the banks of the river. They pledged to coordinate action on the situation on the river, especially with regard to the sustainable use of water for energy. If no steps are taken on a larger scale, the future of the region’s people and nature is painted in black colors.

We also encourage you to read the ranking of the longest rivers in the world described in the article: “The longest rivers in the world“.

Photo source: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

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