Why the Most Important River in Southeast Asia Is Under Threat
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Why the Most Important River in Southeast Asia Is Under Threat

A way of life for millions of people in Asia is under threat from a complex problem. The Mekong River, which is the longest river in Southeast Asia, is in crisis. The building of upstream dams has sparked controversy, along with practices triggering riverbed degradation and climate change.

Rustic Pathways’ Country Manager for Cambodia and Vietnam says the effects are being felt in places like the floating villages where students have visited in the past.

“These villages face a lot of challenges because of water level changes on the Mekong River,” Pannha En said.

The floating villages in Cambodia rely on Tonle Sap Lake, which the Mekong River feeds. Waterflow changes have reduced the fish population. In the past the lake had one of the most productive fisheries in the world. Normally about a half million tons of fish were drawn from it each year, which is more than could be fished from all of North America’s lakes combined.

floating village of Prek Toal, Cambodia

Rustic students have completed many service projects in the floating village of Prek Toal, Cambodia. Photo: Rustic Pathways

But the number of fish has declined as water conditions have changed. Pannha says the local villagers have responded by banning certain forms of fishing, including the use of electric shock or nets with small holes that may catch eggs or other important byproducts.

In March, scientists released 1500 juvenile fish that were reared in captivity into protected zones of the lake. Mandated “no-take zones” allow the fish to mature before they go on spawning migrations. The hope is this effort will help rejuvenate the fish population.

These are small steps in an ever-growing problem.

The Mighty Mekong

The Mekong River, which is called Lancang in China, spans 2,700 miles across six countries – China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. More than 60 million people depend on it for their livelihood.

It is said the waterway is in its worst condition in more than 60 years. Many government officials blame dams for much of the problem. China has 11 large dams on the river, and Laos, which is the poorest country in the region, has dozens of dams along the river and its tributaries with more planned. Laos is hoping to profit off the creation of hydroelectric power by selling it to neighboring countries.

Chinese officials reject some of the concerns about its dams. They claim the dams in China disrupt seasonal flood problems, which should help downstream countries. Despite these claims, drought has been a bigger problem in recent years.

Plus, water flow alone is not the only issue. The dams can affect how much silt and vegetation is in the river. This affects the fish population, makes it harder to control erosion, and causes problems for rice farmers. In southern Vietnam, farmers depend on silt deposits for their rice fields.

Rice field in Laos

Rice fields across Southeast Asia need a rich supply of water to thrive. Copyright: © 2015 Rustic Pathways

For other farmers river changes can sometimes leave the basin dry and other times lead to flooding, causing unpredictability. In addition, the salinity of the water is increasing, which is being blamed on the dams upstream and sand mining downstream.

The lack of sediment is causing the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to recede, leading to intrusion from the sea. There are concerns this will get worse as sea levels rise.

Looking for Answers

In the 1990s four countries formed the Mekong River Commission to promote cooperation. One main problem is that China is not part of this commission.

In 2020, China agreed to provide year-round hydrological data that would help the other countries forecast both droughts and floods. Last fall, the countries in the region also agreed to study the impact of climate change and the dams on the river. This will help answer questions about the role of dams in the region.

The effort is becoming increasingly urgent, according to another study in 2021. The research by a Dutch consulting firm called the year 2050 the “tipping point” – the year at which factors like salinity won’t be controllable if changes don’t occur.

The hope is that international cooperation will help ease the problem. In the meantime, Pannha says countries like Cambodia and Vietnam are turning to other industries to keep their economy alive.

Rustic Pathways students in Cambodia

Tourism is an important industry in Cambodia. Photo: Rustic Pathways

One key plan is to promote tourism that’ll help locals keep food on the table. Until improvements in these industries can be made, only time will tell how the mighty Mekong will fare over the next several years.

A number of conservationists remain hopeful. They note that the Mekong is injured but not destroyed.

For them, their hopes partially lie in the younger generation. With the added education about conservation, younger leaders can step up to find answers. And that may be what it takes to restore this international treasure.

Rustic students are doing their part to help in Southeast Asia. Over the years, students participating in programs centered in Cambodia and Laos have provided assistance to local communities near the river. In 2023, the unique Floating Village program will return.

In addition, each summer the programs in Vietnam and Thailand, such as Marine and Rainforest Conservation, are helping the region at large and providing an education about responsible practices. This promotion of a healthier environment goes a long way towards keeping waterways clean and enabling local communities to thrive. For more information on global environmental efforts that are making an impact, please view our conservation programs.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.