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Mother Mekong Under Threat

THAILAND | Saturday, 8 May 2010 | Views [578]

Having crossed the mighty Mekong River by bridge and water taxi in Thailand and travelled down it by slow boat and tube in Laos, I have learnt that 'The Mekong River' translates to 'Mae Nam Khong' in Thai - 'Mae' meaning 'Mother', 'Nam' meaning 'Water'. Hence, "the Mother River".

However, I didn't know before reading the Bangkok Post recently, that the Mother River is under threat. Here is the link to the article that first alerted me to the dire situation: http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/35196/change-comes-to-the-mighty-mekong

Certainly concerning reading. Wikipedia has a good map that shows the path the Mekong winds from Tibet, through China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, where it rests, here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mekong

Millions of South East Asians rely on the Mekong for their livelihoods. I have some into direct contact with local Thais and Lays who generate their incomes by fishing, irrigation for crops, hiring tubes for tubing, transporting tourists and locals across or down the river by various watercraft, bathing and swimming in its depths, collecting fresh water for drinking and cooking, as well as any other water activity you can think of.

I have paraphrased Thai tourism websites regarding flora and fauna found within the Mekong River, and the environmental concerns in the following sections:

BIODIVERSITY:
The Mekong is one of the richest areas of biodiversity in the world - only the Amazon boasts a higher level of biodiversity, and the Mekong beats this number by biodiversity per unit area.
No other river is home to so many species of large fish. The biggest include the giant river carp, which can grow up to 1.5 metres and weigh 70 kilograms, the Mekong Freshwater Stingray, which can have a wingspan of up to 4.3 metres, the giant pangasius, Siamese giant carp and the endemic Mekong giant catfish, all three of which can grow up to 3 metres in length and weigh 300 kilograms. All of these are in serious decline, because of damming and overfishing.

One species of freshwater dolphin, the Irrawaddy Dolphin, was once common in the whole of the Lower Mekong but is now very rare, being found only in the tributaries of the 4000 Islands in Laos. The endangered Siamese Crocodile is also reported to occur along the Mekong but is even rarer.

ENVIRONMENTAL CONCERNS:
The most current issues affecting the are the recent droughts due to climate change, the construction of dams in the rivers north, and the blasting of rapids by which to do so.

In response to these concerns, the Mekong River Commission - a panel of the representatives from all the nations that the Mekong passes through, except China and Burma who refuse to join to date - has been formed. Made up of officials, environmentalists, scientists and concerned citizens, the MRC have accused China of blatantly disregarding the nations downstream in its plans to dam the river to generate hydro-electricity. However, China is also feeling the impact of the low water levels, with a reported 24 million people in its southwest short of drinking water.

China has already completed three of these hydro-power dams, with another twelve in stages of consideration and progress. Since the building of the first dam, many river-dwelling species have become endangered, water levels are at their lowest in 50 years, the turnover of catchment at Chiang Rai port is less than a quarter of previous years, and crossings from Chiang Rai (Thailand) to Luang Prabang (Laos) have lengthened from 8 hours to 2 days due to inadequate water levels.

Personally, I have witnessed water restrictions in cities and tour operators loss of income by way of water activities such as tubing, bamboo and white water rafting due to there being hardly a foot of water present in rivers that four years ago were deep enough to jump off rocks into.

Despite the aforementioned problems, new dams planned will have significantly worse impact if carried out. All nations downstream and their ecosystems will suffer from added pollution (due to development and relatively lax regulation and enforcement in China compared to Thailand, poisoning the food supply from pesticide runoff and heavy industry, as well as promoting algal blooms from organophosphates from agriculture), river blockage problems as fish cannot swim upstream to spawn, and potentially devastatingly low water flow.

Other environmental concerns arise from increased water flow in some parts as China clears rocks, sandbars, blasts gorges, and slows water as it dams and floods other sections and relocates indigenous people. In these respects, Cambodia is by far the most susceptible to ruin, due to the poverty-stricken nations dependency on the river.

This situation is reminiscent of the mass famine and devastating floods that destroyed the Angkor kingdom some 700 years ago, but in reverse. Cambodia, though likely to suffer the hardest blows by the lack of water, will not be alone - Laos' cities all hug the Mekong, as does Vietnams' Ho Chi Minh.

For further information about the Mekong River Commission and its initiatives, see here:
http://www.mrcmekong.org/about_mekong/about_mekong.htm

As I come into contact with the (maybe not so) mighty Mekong, I will update this article as I compare my experiences of four years ago with more recent ones. For now, I can only hope that the 60 million people who rely on it for their survival, can find other sources of food and income, if the damage is as extensive and irreversible as it appears to be from my research efforts.

Update:
The Mekong River Summit, the first since the Commissions commemoration 15 years ago, was held on April 5 in Hua Hin, Thailand.

150 academics and environmentalists from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam attended, with China and Burma sending representatives on behalf of their nations.

Local media reported tension within the Commission stemming from Chinese hydropower stations that are being held responsible for the dramatic drop in water levels in lower basins.

However, China have hit back at such accusations, citing increased population, urbanisation, plantations, tourism and climate change as legitimate contributing factors to the recent situation.

At the Summit, member countries attempted to influence China to join the Commission, but were unsuccessful - membership means all countries must consider other member nations before taking any action that would affect them, and China does not treat the Mekong as an international river.

The Summit has been largely received in local media as a failure, as it did not convince China to join, nor
come up with an immediate plan of action to implement to tackle the issues facing the not-so-mighty Mekong.

Vietnam will host the next MRC summit in 2014.

Tags: biodiversity, damming, drought, environment, mekong river, mekong river commission, water shortage.

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