The Battle Over the Mekong
Image Credit: Preetam Rai

The Battle Over the Mekong


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.

November 26, 2010 at 06:47

@huang,environmetalist always do not necessarily involve western state interest, as yourself seem to represent chinese people’s voice (though I wonder if thats the case), given that there are clearly predictable and scientific facts against some water damming projects, I would say it should rest on individual case. @Jason, DDT problems are not area specific but universal so it has been discarded everywhere, your comment smells of Eurocentric mindset when you try to associate the developing world with poverty and diseases and your use of term ‘THIRD WORLD’ when the term is no longer relevant! cheers guys

John Chan
October 28, 2010 at 22:39

@Jason, Huang’s comment is measured and reasonable. Huang’s comment only said the final responsibility rest on the parties involved directly because those parties are the ones to suffer the consequencies of their decisions. Your comment is putting your words in his mouth, it is an underhand tactic to smear a follow contributor.

John Chan
October 28, 2010 at 22:19

Everybody wants to have the developed world’s (the West and Japan) living standard. Hydro is the clean source of energy to achieve that goal if water is available. Yet the developed world is lecturing the developing world destroying the environment for that goal. Insufficient water is the problem, which is the result of environmental pollution that has being produced by the developed world since industrial revolution. The US and Canada even refuse to honor their Kyoto Protocol.
In the Copenhagen Environment conference, the developed world negated their promised aids, few billions dollars, to the developing world for improving their environmental problems, and refused to transfer green technologies to the developing world for reducing pollution. Meanwhile the developed world gave trillions of dollars to the rich in the financial crisis to fatten their pockets further more.
Only the developed world can understand their specious concerns on issues of environment, human right, democracy, freedom of speech, etc.

October 27, 2010 at 10:16

A few more thoughts,there are parts of the Mekong at present are not navigatable due to differences in the depth of the water. These hydropower dams will transform the river into one that will be possible for eco-tourisms all the way from within China down toward the deltas of South VietNam. With the completion of these neccessary civil engineering projects,there will be ways that can better protect or farm these marine species unique to the mighty Mekong. The benifits out-weight all un-founded concerns or disruptions. The people in China,Thailand,Laos,Cambodia,and VietNam share the same believes and concerns to the environment baecause their livelihood depends on the land being protected and hopefully improved. With abundant electric power productions,boats navigating the mighty Mekong might even be powered by electricity. Thats another plus for the environment.

October 27, 2010 at 09:50

No environmentalist understands or knows the impacts to the area(the whole lenght of the mighty Mekong river)more than the locals who live there for generations. These people may not be considered educated by the civilized World,yet they have their own ways of looking at the World(area)they live in with knowledge mainstream science still struggling to translate with all their books and devices. The industrial revolution brought massive environmental destruction in the developed World 100 years ago,yet the rivers,streams,lakes,and shores remain fairly good. mankind always have the ability to stop,reduce,rejuvenate nature because of its important to their livelihoods. The inevitable evolution(developments)in the region as a whole will only move forward. Critics(local or foreign)should understand is not just a necessity but an environmentally sound alternative to fossil fuel or coal. This is the only direction these countries concerned have as the ever changing global,regional,economic,political,social,population…environment evolves. By the way,the Chinese ways of doing things is not bad if the results are favorable to all and at no expense to anyone else.

October 26, 2010 at 01:11

As you say, decisions for these projects are restricted to the region. Yes, “It is the duty and responsibility of all Countries concerned to study and protect the ecology,environment,and wildlife of the area.” But, how do we define the word ‘area’? It seems to me that China has built, and continues to build, new dams on the Mekong with total disregard to complaints from other Mekong countries. It seems that China defines the word ‘area’ as a word with ‘Chinese characteristics’.

October 26, 2010 at 00:14

IT is the time for all nation ,people and families to act on environmental issues

October 24, 2010 at 23:53

Environmentalists don’t care about people Huang. If they did DDT would still be legal and millions of deaths from malaria in third world countries over the last 3 decades would have been avoided.

October 24, 2010 at 09:26

The decisions to built dams along the Mekong river system rest on China,Cambodia,Laos,Thailand,and VietNam and NO-OTHER-THIRD PARTIES. After all,the costs or benifits from these projects are restricted to the region and third parties opinions are appreciated but must be carefully looked into to make sure they are sincere gestures or just lip movements to slow the developments of the region. It is the duty and responsibility of all Countries concerned to study and protect the ecology,environment,and wildlife of the area. It is worth noting that when China was building the Three Gorge Dam,there were objections from many surprising sources that it rendered the criticisms,concerns to be suspicious(it raises a thought-Why are they(third-parties) so interested in China’s enronment?Do they really care about the welfare of the Chinese people?) Ultimately,it is the countries concerned that must discuss and study thoroughly before the project and dis-regard third party objections,false alarms,or nonsense.

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