The Precarious State of the Mekong

Prolonged stress on the Lower Mekong Basin is reaching an ecological tipping point, threatening millions of livelihoods.

Generations of people along the Mekong, which flows through six countries, have long had a profound, even spiritual bond with the mighty river: from the highlands of Tibet through the Golden Triangle down to the Mekong Delta, it is one of the most biodiverse freshwater regions in the world, rivaled only by that of the Amazon. For centuries, the transboundary Mekong has been Southeast Asia’s lifeline for millions of people and wildlife. Long considered the “most productive place on Earth” for fishermen and farmers who have come to depend on it, things have changed dramatically for the river’s fortunes, most notably in the last decade.

Disequilibrium in the Mekong has become the new norm: droughts, floods, and low fish stocks are becoming more frequent. The immense environmental destruction taking place throughout the basin is a consequence of multiple dam projects, mainly constructed by China’s government, which have likely permanently altered the river’s characteristics. Pollution, overfishing, and resource extraction threatens irreversible damage to the delicate ecosystem. According to historical data, 2021 was the 9th driest season on record in the Mekong basin. 

To make things worse, a new UNESCO report released just ahead of COP27 warned that numerous icefields around the world are likely to vanish by 2050 which will have a substantial effect on river basins including the Mekong. This will highly affect the basins into which glacier meltwater drains, including half of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. David Dudgeon, emeritus professor of ecology and biodiversity at the University of Hong Kong, recently told the SCMP that climate change would further degrade the Yangtze and Mekong rivers which flow from the Tibetan plateau to Southeast Asia. Both are already “heavily dammed.”

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