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The Mekong River is a major transboundary river with origins 5,000 meters above sea level in the Tibetan Plateau. The river’s course runs through Yunnan Province, China (where it is known as the Lancang Jiang) and five Southeast Asian nationsMyanmar, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. The Mekong forms part of the borders of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand. It drains an area of 795,000 square kilometers. Its annual discharge of 475 square kilometers and length of 4,180 kilometers makes the Mekong the longest and largest (by volume) river in mainland Southeast Asia, and the 12th longest and 10th largest in the world.
The population of the Mekong basin is estimated at 60 million, 50 million of whom reside in the Lower Mekong, the part of the river that flows through Southeast Asia. Approximately 25 percent of this Lower Mekong population lives in the Mekong Delta region, the most densely populated and agriculturally productive part of the basin. More than 70 ethnic groups live in the Lower Mekong basin. Human settlement in the basin dates back 6,000 years, and the Angkor civilization flourished on its banks (9th-15th centuries).
The Mekong is a vital livelihood resource for the people living on the banks of its tributaries and main stem, notably for irrigating some of the world’s most productive rice fields, as well as the thriving fish catches. Mekong river ecosystems are some of the most diverse in the world. An estimated
400 fish species live in the Mekong and its tributaries, including the giant catfish (Pangasianodon gigas) and Irrawady dolphin.
Another unique environmental feature is the Tonle Sap, a lake in Cambodia that naturally regulates the extremities of seasonal flooding and low water levels in the main river. There is concern that dam construction on the river will impair the Tonle Sap’s future ability to act as a “bladder” for the Mekong.
The Mekong has long held the imagination of institutions and administrations that have sought to exploit its potential. For the French seeking to expand colonial possessions in the late 19th century, the Mekong was purported to hold the key route to China. Although an 1866 expedition to chart this route failed to accomplish this, it succeeded in producing a number of mapping and qualitative surveys that were instrumental in guiding future French expansion in the region. Today, the river remains navigable only in sections.
Contemporary aspirations turned away from the river’s navigability to the harnessing of its hydropower potential. In 1957, the Mekong Committee was formed with the aim of coordinating intercountry cooperation on flood control, irrigation, and hydropower. The first dams built were the Nam Pong and Nam Pung (1965-66) in Thailand’s northeast, and the Nam Ngum (1971) in Laos. Other than these, activities of the committee came to a halt as the Indochinese (Vietnam) war escalated, and later, as Cambodia came under the control of the Khmer Rouge.
Cooperation was revived in 1995 with Cambodia’s renewed participation in the newly reformed Mekong River Commission (MRC), which heralded a new era of regional cooperation, a move “from battlefield to marketplace.” The commission revived scientific studies of the Mekong River, aiming at the sustainable development of the river’s resources, although its true influence remains questionable, largely because two riparian countries-Burma and China-are not MRC members.
Although the Lower Mekong countries have agreed to avoid hydropower projects on the main stem, China has completed two main stem dams and has plans for more, with possible downstream impacts on the Lower Mekong. Dam-building on the Lower Mekong tributaries, however, gained momentum in the 21st century. The environmental and social costs of such projects have so far been secondary to the push for economic development in countries like Laos, where hydropower for export contributes a quarter of the annual Gross Domestic Product.
- Hiroshi Hori, The Mekong: Environment and Development (United Nations University Press, 2000);
- Milton Osborne, The Mekong: Turbulent Past, Uncertain Future (Allen & Unwin, 2000).