The untamed, roaring currents of the mighty Mekong have long enchanted travellers, inspired explorers and sustained some 65 million inhabitants who live off the world’s largest freshwater fisheries.
From its source in the snow-capped mountains of Tibet, the Mekong flows 1,880 kilometres through China, winding down through the heart of South-east Asia before emptying into a fertile delta in Vietnam.
‘For the people born on the Mekong, the river is like their blood—the principle of life,’ says Dorn Bouttasing, an environmental researcher in Laos.
Nita Roykaew, a teacher and ecologist based in Chiang Khong in northern Thailand, agrees. ‘The Mekong is very special for the people,’ he says. ‘The community understands what’s important for life: water, forests, soil and culture.’
Nita, a community organiser with the ‘Save the Mekong’ campaign, says he sees the river as a precious part of the country’s cultural heritage, something that should transcend simple financial considerations. ‘Many governments only think about the economy,’ he says. ‘(They think) nothing about nature and culture.’
But the river, one of the most biodiverse in the world, is under threat. Included in the river’s rich ecosystem is the giant catfish, which can grow to up to 3 metres in length and weigh in excess of 300 kg, as well as a colony of the endangered Irrawaddy dolphin. It’s a natural mecca for ecotourism, but rapid investment in the rapid expansion of hydropower dams is starting to take its toll.
China has already built four dams on the Lancang (the Chinese stretch of the Mekong), including the colossal Xiaowan Dam, the tallest high-arch dam in the world at 292 metres high, which was completed in August.
But plans for four more in China on top of 11 already approved by government planners in Laos and Cambodia have raised serious concerns about the river’s future.
‘The two dams, Xiaowan and Nuozhadu (the next Chinese dam to be built), will impact the flow regime of the entire system—all the way down to the delta in Vietnam,’ saysPhilip Hirsch, director of the Mekong Research Centre at the University of Sydney.
But it’s not just the Chinese government that supports the dam building. Officials in Laos are also keen to exploit the promise of hydropower, seeing it as one way to lift the country out of chronic poverty through electricity sales to energy-hungry neighbours Thailand and Vietnam.