The Turbulent River. The Mother of Waters. The Nine-tailed Dragon. No single honorific captures the Mekong River’s power and majesty — or its paramount importance in the lives of those who depend on it.
“Mekong mainstream dams are not needed to meet the region’s energy and water needs…. Now is the time to cancel the Mekong mainstream dams permanently and prioritize sustainable and equitable energy options and pathways that respect the rights of communities.”[Source: Save the Mekong Coalition]
The centrality of the Mekong River in the lives of some 65 million people in Southeast Asia is unchallenged. It’s a primary source of protein for tens of millions of people and it also offers irrigation, transport, sediment for fertilizer, and much more. Numerous migratory fish species spawn in its upper reaches.
But the Mekong has remained in the sights of dam developers for decades, and the river’s normal flow regime has already been substantially altered by upstream dams in China. Those dams are trapping sediment and changing the river’s temperature and flow, impacting downstream fisheries and seriously affecting the livelihoods of people from the Thai/Lao border down to the delta in Vietnam.
For decades, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam have proposed damming the Lower Mekong Basin, but in recent years, the pace of development has sped up. Some dams, including the Xayaburi and Pak Beng dams, are complete. The construction of dams on the Lower Mekong mainstream will have repercussions throughout the entire basin, changing the river’s hydrology, blocking fish migration and affecting the river’s ecology – threatening the lives, livelihoods, cultures and identities of tens of millions of people.
Two dams, the Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams, have been completed on the Mekong mainstream. These dams are already impacting migratory fish; additional dams would hasten the decline of this vitally important fishery.
The many storage dams built on the Mekong’s tributaries are already starving the river of vital sediment, leading to erosion, land subsidence and salinity downstream.
Major dams upstream in China have already changed the Mekong’s flow regime, sediment levels and temperature.
Plans to blast rocky rapids in the Mekong mainstream would destroy critical breeding habitat for many species of fish.
What’s At Stake
The Mekong is home to at least 1,200 species of fish; the river basin is second only to the Amazon in terms of biodiversity. But hydropower dam development, rapids blasting or other interventions threaten the delicate balance of life that has evolved over millennia. Over 100 species would face extinction, and already precarious species like the Mekong catfish and the Irrawaddy dolphin face almost certain annihilation.
Sediment flow is essential for the entire Mekong basin, and particularly the delta. Known as the “rice bowl of Asia,” the Mekong Delta in southwestern Vietnam relies on regular deposits of the river’s sediment to replenish its rich, productive soils. Upstream dams on tributaries are decreasing sediment loads and water flow, which is increasing land subsidence and salinization.
A struggling Mekong River will have ripple effects across the region’s economy. Current studies estimate that fisheries, currently worth over $11 billion a year, could drop by a catastrophic 40-80%.
An estimated 70 million people depend on the Mekong River for food, whether it’s through riverbank gardens, fishing or river trade.
- The majority of the 65 million people living in the Lower Mekong Basin rely on the river for their food and/or livelihoods.
- Upstream dams in China are already threatening the river’s flow regime.
- Dams on the lower part of the river could decimate fish populations, one-third of which are migratory.