- Issue: Spring 2015
Asia's Mekong River proves John Muir’s observation that when it comes to nature, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
The nearly 3,000-mile path of this singular river starts in the Tibetan Plateau as snow melt from the Himalayan mountain range. It works its way down through China’s Yunnan Province and meanders—then rushes—through Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia, some of the most diverse and interesting economies in the world. The Mekong ends in Vietnam, where it feeds a vast and productive delta before pouring out into the South China Sea.
The Mekong means something different to each country. China sees enormous hydroelectric potential, and has built a whole series of dams far upstream. But when you get to Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, the river is undammed. Debates rage over its future.
Vietnam’s economy rests on a combination of manufacturing and agriculture; its delta is known as the rice bowl of Southeast Asia and it depends on a constant flow from upstream of nutrients and sediments that are essential to keeping the rice paddies productive.
Vietnam’s neighbors to the west—Myanmar, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos—depend heavily on the Mekong for fish as a main source of protein for their growing populations. Unfortunately, Laos is in the final stages of constructing the Xayaburi Dam so it can ship the electricity produced to Thailand. Laos is also moving forward on the Don Sahong Dam, which will imperil downstream fisheries for Thailand and Cambodia, reduce the flow over the spectacular Khone Phapheng Falls and likely result in the extinction of Irrawaddy dolphins.
Three years ago I had the privilege of joining then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and high-level government representatives from the Mekong River countries in Phnom Penh for a meeting of Friends of the Lower Mekong. We came together to help unite these countries in recognizing the enormous value the river has to all of them, and to make sure each one does its part to keep the river intact.
A high point of the meeting came when the representative from Laos announced that Laos would not build the Xayaburi—a dam that would be an ecological and food-security disaster, create a reservoir nearly 40 miles long, and have permanent impacts on migratory fish populations and sediment flows. But only a few months later, it turned out that in fact Laos would move ahead with the dam.
Looking ahead, we want to see governments in the region enact a moratorium on dams on the main stem of the lower Mekong for at least 10 years. This will allow for proper consultation among these close neighbors and thorough environmental impact assessments. Because if the wrong dam is built, then migratory fish populations and local livelihoods will suffer, endemic species will almost certainly disappear, and the flow of sediments to Vietnam will be dangerously interrupted.
But if the cost of taking these steps is higher than the cost of building the dams—and results in lower energy production—who pays the difference? WWF’s conviction is that we can steer a middle path by putting all the right values on the table and making smart choices.
Bringing together the science and the financial institutions to sort through these trade-offs is part of WWF’s role. And connecting them is essential to avoid the destruction and loss of the extraordinary wealth of a resource that feeds the remarkable people and cultures whose fates are hitched to the mighty Mekong River.
President and CEO