The Mekong River

Southeast Asian hill country along the Mekong.

5. Description

The longest river in Southeast Asia, the Mekong arises in the Qinghai province of China before going about traversing 5 more countries. Namely, these are Burma (Myanmar), the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. After the long journey, the river finally drains into the South China Sea. The river covers a course of around 4,350 kilometers and drains an area of approximately 810,000 square kilometers. The flow of the river is divided into two regions based on the geographical differences of the river system. The Upper Mekong basin includes the river from its point of origin from the Za Qu in the Tibetan Plateau until it reaches the Yunnan highlands of China. The rest of the river basin, all the way to the Mekong's drainage into the South China Sea in Vietnam, is designated as the Lower Mekong basin. The Mekong River is also a global biodiversity hotspot, next only to the South American Amazon in terms of the species diversity found in its basin. It also supports the largest inland fishery in the world. Millions of people inhabit the region around the Mekong basin, most of whom are dependent on the river for their respective livelihoods and lifestyles.

4. Historical Role

For centuries, the Mekong River has played a significant role in the lives of the people living in and around its river basin. The river is thus endowed with a long and rich history of its own. It is possible that human settlements in the Mekong River region existed as early as 210 BC, as evidenced by the unravelling of the archaeological details of the Ban Chiang archaeological site in Thailand. The most prominent example of early architecture built along the banks of the river is the Angkor Wat of Cambodia, built in the 12th Century by a ruler of the Khmer Empire. Between the 16th and 19th Centuries, several European expeditions were directed into the Mekong, with the first systematic one being the French Mekong Expedition. Lasting between 1866 and 1868, the French Mekong Expedition was led by Francis Garnier and Ernest Doudart de Lagrée. In more recent years, the Mekong River Delta also played a strategic role in the regional wars of the area, as well as the Vietnam War of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s in the tumultuous period following the end of French Indochina.

3. Modern Significance

As per estimates, around 2 million tons of fish are caught annually in the Mekong River, with these landed fish being meant both for domestic consumption and export. The annual export value of the Mekong’s fisheries is estimated to be $3.9 to $7 billion USD. The Mekong River Delta is responsible for generating over 50% of Vietnam’s staple food crops, especially rice in the paddies flooded along it. More than 80% of the 40 million strong population living along the lower Mekong River basin depend on the river for their food and income. The construction of hydroelectric dams on the river system also generates electric power that supplies electricity to millions of homes based on the banks of the river and well beyond. Even though the upper reaches of the river system provide considerable challenges for navigation, the river is still an important trade route connecting the six countries through which it flows, not only with each other, but as well as with the rest of the world. Important cities and towns, like Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia and Vientiane, the capital of Laos, are located on the banks of the Mekong River.

2. Habitat

The Mekong River supports an incredible variety of flora and fauna throughout the entire course from its source to its mouth. As per WWF reports, in 2014 alone 139 new species were identified in the Greater Mekong Region. The river is inhabited by at least 1,100 freshwater fish species, including the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphins. Besides the fish in the waters, the Greater Mekong Region also sustains a wide variety of terrestrial habitats, ranging from moist rainforests to grassland ecosystems as well as wetlands. 20,000 species of plants, 1,200 avian species, 430 mammal species, and a large variety of amphibians, reptiles, and insects also inhabit the region. Around 350 endangered Indochinese tigers wander in the forests of the Greater Mekong Region, their numbers having been greatly dilapidated over the years by poaching and habitat destruction. Another notable species of this region include the saola, a rare ungulate which was discovered in 1992. Among the reptiles, the endangered Siamese crocodile and the famous saltwater crocodile are worth mentioning.

1. Threats and Disputes

Large scale subsistence fishing, accompanied with illegal fishing, and improper and unregulated fishing practices in both, has led to a harrowing decline in the fish populations of the Mekong River. A number of ecologically significant species of fish, like the giant carp, Mekong giant catfish, and the giant sting ray, are all suffering a steep decline in their respective numbers. Climate change powered by global warming is also going to take its toll on the Mekong's ecology. It is possible that a rapid melting, and subsequent depletion, of the Himalayan glaciers, which are feeding the Mekong, could lead to a drop in the water level of this river in the future. Prior to this, a rise in sea level also threatens a mass scale flooding of the Mekong River Delta in coastal Vietnam. Though the effects of climate change might take a few years to exert their full blown impacts on the river, a more severe and immediate threat is already causing the downfall of the Mekong River's ecosystem. The construction of a large number of dams along the course of the river, and the ongoing ambitious endeavor of the Xayaburi Dam project in China, threaten to destroy and damage life along the river, while at the same time displacing large sections of the human population. Such development is pushing several rare, unique, and endemic species like the Mekong giant catfish towards the brink of extinction. Even the Irrawaddy dolphins could suffer immediate deaths from the killer sound waves generated in the water during the blasting of the rocks during the dam construction.


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