As hydropower dams quell the Mekong’s life force, what are the costs?

Over the past few decades, the construction of hydropower dams has undermined the river’s capacity to support life: more than 160 dams operate throughout the Mekong Basin, including 13 on the river’s mainstream, with hundreds more either planned or under construction.

The Mekong River carves a vast aquatic lifeline through Asia. Rising in glacial streams high in the Tibetan plateau, the river morphs as it tumbles south through rocky ravines, steep-sided valleys and expansive flooded forests to the South China Sea. Its influence is immense: over its 4,350-kilometer (2,700-mile) course, the Mekong drains a basin spanning hundreds of tributaries and six countries: China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. But the scale of its epic proportions is far outweighed by the richness and diversity of life it sustains through its biodiverse ecosystems, unparalleled fisheries and fertile floodplains.

Its vast biodiversity rivaled only by the Amazon, the Mekong’s muddy brown waters are a refuge for an array of extraordinary species, many of which occur nowhere else on the planet; from critically endangered Irrawaddy river dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and Asian giant softshell turtles (Pelochelys cantorii) to Mekong giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and the world’s largest recorded freshwater fish, the giant freshwater stingray (Urogymnus polylepis).

With so much biodiversity, the river yields one-fifth of the world’s total freshwater fish catch every year. More than 1,000 types of freshwater fish migrate seasonally up and down the river, fueling wild fisheries that provide food security and livelihoods for tens of millions of people.

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