Mekong: Damming Life

60 million people depend on the Mekong for their livelihoods and food, but there are momentous changes, already in motion, that look certain to create desperate times ahead for some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in the world.

Stretching from Qinghai province, China, through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia to its delta in Vietnam, the Mekong river runs more than 4,300 kilometres. For countless generations, the Mekong has been the lifeblood of these Countries, providing food, water, irrigation and transport. What lies ahead though, could irrevocably alter this river and cause calamity for the people and environment that depend on it.

Increasing demands on the river for irrigation and power are starting to take their toll.With droughts becoming more regular due to global warming, already the river is vulnerable to brine encroachment. This year, with river levels at 90-year lows, salt is finding its way up from the ocean further each year, destroying crops and land. Crops are failing on an ever more regular basis.

Perhaps, with better policy, the damage to the river and it’s eco system can be limited, but alas, here lies the root of the issue. It is the continued bad management of the river that provides the biggest challenge the river faces today.

For reasons of power and wealth generation, the Mekong river is set to become one of the most dammed rivers in the world. Already China has built 6 hydroelectric dams. Laos and Cambodia, lobbied strongly by Chinese, Thai and Korean engineering firms, plan in the next 15 years, to build 70 or more major dams, including seven across the full width of the river.

With falls in river flow of 10% over the last 30 years, experts are predicting that these proposals could restrict flow by an additional 25% or more. Perhaps even more significantly some of the full-width reservoirs planned will block access for migrating fish causing catastrophic declines in fish stocks.

“It is an ecological time bomb that threatens the food security of millions. The dam will have negative impacts on the entire Mekong river ecosystem all the way to the delta in Vietnam,” said Mark Goichot, a hydrologist working with WWF.

What happens to the Mekong has global ramifications either with fish, rice or increased refugees from the region. There are solutions to be found, but these depend on regional cooperation and the foresight and vision of responsible leaders.

At the moment, the outlook is not looking so good. The next few years will be critical for this region and all who depend on the Mekong.

For more information please check out this incredible story from The Guardian Newspaper, Mekong: A River Rising, written by John Vial and winner of the Webbies award for Best Use of Video Or Moving Image.