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Mekong

Between you and I

Situated in Southeast Asia, I cross the Himalayas before flowing in the China Sea after a journey of 4,000 kilometres that crosses 6 countries. In China, where I thunder in the mountains of Tibet and Yunnan, I am called Lancang, “turbulent river“. In Vietnam, they call me the “river of nine dragons“, because I divide myself into nine main arms. I am above all known around the world as the Mekong.

My delta starts at the Cambodian border. No other place better exemplifies the origin of the word “datnuoc” (meaning country in Vietnamese): “dat” means earth and “nuoc” means water. Without me, there are no rice fields, so no food, and good transport would be almost impossible in a marshy region where roads are rare and extremely difficult to build.

More than 250 million people live in my basin. I am an integral part of the regional cultural identity. As a sacred river, I nourished the spirituality of the people. A common mythological figure, the giant Naga snake, guardian of the river, adorns the temples built along my banks. However, managing me is no small affair between the different countries I cross and fluctuates between cooperation and trials of strength.

The Mekong’s vital statistics 

  • Source: Himalayan plateau of Qinghai at 5,000 meters altitude
  • Mouth: the China Sea
  • Average discharge: 15,000 m3/s at its mouth
  • Total length: 4,350 km
  • Watershed: 795,000 km² 
  • Countries crossed: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam

A little history

Temple de Luang Prabang

The cradle of many civilisations, I was also the object of explorations by Europeans (especially the French) and Americans, as from the end of the 19th century. In 1893, I was controlled by the French up to Laos, with the founding of French Indochina. This situation ended with the Indochinese and Vietnam Wars in the middle of the 20th century.

The first dam was built by China in 1986. Other, sometimes gigantic, hydroelectric development schemes, were then built from the Upper Mekong up to Vietnam, in parallel with the development of international cooperation regarding my basin. The latter is spurred by economic interest, the need to better share my resource, and growing concern about environmental issues.

My myriad uses

 

Irrigation, vital for rice growing

Agriculture is the most important economic activity in the Lower Mekong region and is the means of subsistence for 60% of its inhabitants. Moreover, my waters are above all used for irrigation. 95% of Vietnam’s rice exports come from the Mekong delta!

The boom in hydroelectricity development

Travaux de la passe à poissons – barrage de Xayaburi

Hydroelectricity production has several advantages: it reduces poverty, it provides energy security, in a region undergoing considerable demographic and economic growth.

Today, only 10% of my basin’s hydroelectricity potential is used but projects to build mega-dams are multiplying, with a certain number of associated problems and risks (the displacement of populations; blocking the passage of sediments and fish; the safety of the structures, etc.).

 

Fishing: a source of wealth and conflict

More than two million tons of fish are caught every year in my waters, which it represents the first inland fishing area in the world! Aquaculture, especially that practised in my delta, is in constant progression, despite the fact that the fisheries sometimes dispute my water with other uses such as the supply of drinking water and different industries that use large volumes for their activities.

 

River transport as a lever for economic development

Port de Saigon

Used for centuries to transport passengers, I’m increasingly considered as a lever for economic development, with the construction of new ports and the modernisation of the navigable waterway. In 2009, the port of Cai Mep in Vietnam was commissioned with a container terminal capable of receiving the largest ships in the world for trade with Europe and the United States.

 

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km of length

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million of inhabitants in my basin

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species of fishes in my water

The main actors of the Mekong

Longstanding tensions between the countries of the region have made it impossible to achieve cooperation to manage my waters. This was especially the case following the Vietnam War when, supported by the American government, Thailand opposed the new communist governments of the region.

In 1957, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam founded the Mekong River Commission dedicated to exploiting the hydropower potential of the Greater Mekong Subregion (under the aegis of the UN). It was the first joint management system designed to control my resources.

The Mekong River Commission

In 1995, the four countries – Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam – signed the Cooperation Agreement for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong Basin, which gave rise to the Mekong River Commission. China and Myanmar have participated in it as observers since 1996. The MRC deals with issues relating to sustainable development, such as those linked to using and conserving my water resources.

What river for tomorrow?

Biodiversity in danger!

With 20,000 species of plants, 430 species of mammals, 1,200 species of birds, etc., my basin is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world.

Despite this abundance, my biodiversity is threatened. Numerous bird habitats suffer from the drainage of wetlands, overgrazing, pesticide use and the modification of farming practises.

The modification of my flow regime, linked for the most part to the construction of dams in China and Thailand upstream, also gives rise to fears of terrible impacts on biodiversity.

Demographic growth and climate change: the vulnerability of the delta

Le Mekong au Cambodge – Photo de Franck Vogel

Increasing urbanisation, rapid demographic growth, the lack of treatment of the wastewater discharged by industry, etc., generate pollution that threatens the delta. Moreover, the region is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. Higher temperatures and increased rainfall in the coming decades will have dramatic consequences for the region’s populations.

I threaten the lives of the people of the countries I cross with the risk of flooding, especially Vietnam. Demographic density places pressure on the land, and huge districts have been built in areas liable to flooding every year. A large part of Ho Chi Minh City is concerned. But the most serious threat comes from the sea. It swells and rises, infiltrating the rice fields with salt and destroying them.

Works could be implemented to overcome these dangers, but the solutions necessarily involve every discipline: hydraulics and energy engineers, architects and urban planners, etc., and they require investments. Such works entail a joint approach to consider efficient and sustainable solutions.

Know more about me

Travel on the river

 

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