Fish writhe frantically in the shallow pool, as their schoolmates stranded on the exposed sandbar breathe their last. It is November, the end of the monsoon season, yet the water in the Mekong river is perilously low. On this stretch, in north-eastern Thailand, the bank is so parched the earth has cracked, and once-leafy bushes are bone dry. Visitors have flocked to the desiccated river bed to catch the trapped carp with their bare hands, but their delight does not diminish the disquiet of locals. “These fish were parent fish,” says Ormbun Thipsuna, a local fish farmer, recalling the scene. “No life any more,” she sighs.
The Mekong animates a vast swathe of Asia, from the snow-packed mountains of south-western China from which it springs, to Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in the lower portion of the basin. As it meanders along its 4,500km route, it feeds and waters some 66m people.