The Mekong

The Mekong River has supported people and wildlife for millennia. Through the four stories below, gain insight into the lives of people who depend on the river for their way of life, the wildlife that rely on its waters, and the ways WWF is helping protect its future.

Smooth-coated otter illustration

Wild Wonders of the Mekong

Along with millions of people, the Mekong River waters support thousands of species of flora and fauna in one of the most biodiverse regions on the Earth. 

Jump to Story h
Fishermen Tran Van Cu and Pham Huu Tri on the Mekong

Life Downstream

A fishing family shares the value of natural water flows, lively fishing grounds, abundant bird populations—and the power of keeping a close connection to home.

Jump to story h
Irrigation Sprinkler Spraying Water on Farm Field

Fresh Water may be our Hardest Working Resource

It sustains us; it provides drinking water and sanitation; it powers homes, businesses, transportation and economies.

Jump to story h
Irrawaddy Dolphin

Swimming With the Tide

In remote northern Cambodia, a community thrives on fish and dolphin tourism— but a proposed dam may destroy it all.

Jump to story h

Wild Wonders of the Mekong Illustrations by Jason Holley

The Mekong River flows more than 2,700 miles from Tibet to the South China Sea. Along with sustaining millions of people, its waters support thousands of species of flora and fauna in one of the most biodiverse regions on the Earth. Here are just a few.

Wild Water Buffalo

Wild Water Buffalo illustration

Standing up to 6 feet high at the shoulder and weighing more than 2,500 pounds, the endangered wild water buffalo is bulkier than its domestic relatives. Its horns grow up to 6 feet across. Water buffalo once roamed much of Asia and remained relatively common in eastern Cambodia’s open forests as late as the 1950s, but wetlands loss, hunting and degradation of floodplains has reduced them to about 4,000 widely scattered individuals— probably fewer. One of the few remaining populations survives in Cambodia’s dry forests.

Siamese Crocodile

Siamese Crocodile illustration

The critically endangered, relatively small Siamese crocodile—adults are usually under 10 feet long—once occurred across most of Southeast Asia, but its numbers are now greatly reduced. In the 1990s, scientists thought the species extinct (or nearly so) in the wild, but in recent years it has turned up in Thailand and in Vietnam, home probably to fewer than 100 animals. Isolated populations of unknown size survive in Myanmar, Indonesia, Laos and Cambodia.

Smooth-coated otter

Smooth-coated otter illustration

Named for its fur, which is shorter and sleeker than that of other otters, the smooth-coated otter can be found all across Asia. But its numbers are declining. In parts of Southeast Asia, human pressures have destroyed much of its habitat, creating a major challenge to the aquatic weasel’s survival. Otter numbers are also being reduced by illegal poaching for furs.

Yellow-cheeked Crested Gibbon

Yellow-cheeked crested gibbon illustration

This lanky, tree-dwelling ape is one of six species of crested gibbon. All have declined throughout their ranges, mostly due to increases in exploitation such as bushmeat hunting. Yellow-cheeked crested gibbons occur in northeastern Cambodia and southern Vietnam and Laos; some 2,500 survive in Cambodia’s Eastern Plains Landscape. Swinging by their arms, they travel through the canopies of tropical forests, and they usually start their days with bouts of calls that serve as vocal claims to territory and trees.

Irrawaddy dolphin

Irrawady dolphin

The Irrawaddy dolphin lives in both coastal and brackish river waters at various sites across Asia; some traditional fishermen have taught wild Irrawaddy dolphins to herd fish toward their nets in return for a portion of the catch. Freshwater populations are often isolated by changing river conditions and drowned in fishing nets. Five of the world’s river dolphin populations are endangered; in the lower Mekong, fewer than 100 Irrawaddy dolphins survive.

Giant Ibis

Giant ibis illustration

The giant ibis is the largest ibis species in the world: standing about 40 inches tall, it is more than twice the height of the glossy ibis found in the United States. Fairly common in the Mekong Delta as late as the 1920s, this critically endangered species—the national bird of Cambodia—has been reduced by deforestation, drained wetlands and warfare. Remnant populations totaling a few hundred birds can be found in Cambodia, with a stronghold in the Eastern Plains Landscape.

Giant Freshwater Stingray

Giant freshwater stingray illustration

One of the world’s largest freshwater fish, the endangered giant freshwater stingray grows up to 16 feet long and may weigh as much as 1,300 pounds. A bottom dweller, it cruises the depths of the Mekong and other rivers as it hunts for small fish and invertebrates. Population declines throughout its range have resulted from loss of habitat to dam projects, degradation of water quality due to deforestation, and fishing for meat, sport and the aquarium trade.

Sarus Crane

At almost 6 feet, the Sarus crane is the world’s tallest flying bird. It once roamed wetlands and open forests across Asia, but its distribution is now fragmented by habitat loss. The world population, ranging from India to Australia, probably numbers no more than 20,000 birds. About 1,000 of the birds still survive in Vietnam and Cambodia. Vietnam created Tram Chim National Park in part to protect the Sarus crane.

Fishing Cat

Fishing cat illustration

Rare throughout its range across southern and Southeast Asia, this endangered cat favors wetlands and streams. Twice the size of a house cat, it is an adept swimmer, even under water, and preys mainly on fish, along with crustaceans and other aquatic species. The cat’s world population, which ranges from India to Thailand, is likely half what it was 25 years ago, though solid population data is lacking. Poaching and loss of habitat to aquaculture and other types of development are persistent threats.

Pygmy Date Palm

Pygmy Date Palm illustration

Growing to about 15 feet tall, the pygmy date palm lives at the waterline along Southeast Asian streams and can grow in dense stands on rocky banks. It is well adapted to life along rivers that periodically overrun their banks. Floods often rip away other plants, but the roots of this palm cling to rock firmly enough to avoid being torn free. The palm also can stand being completely submerged during wet seasons. However, it cannot withstand the many development projects along the river, including road projects that bury strands of the trees in refuse soil. 

Helen's Flying Frog

Helen's flying frog illustration

Biologists discovered Helen’s flying frog in 2009 about 60 miles from Ho Chi Minh City. A denizen of the forest canopy, this 4-inch-long amphibian is large for a flying frog. When extended, thin membranes between the toes of all four feet unfurl into sails, allowing the frog to glide from tree to tree or to the ground. Burgeoning human populations and the cutting of the frog’s lowland forest habitat jeopardize its survival.

Sun Bear

Sun bear illustration

The smallest and one of the rarest bear species, the sun bear forages in trees for fruit, small rodents, birds, insects and honey. Formerly widespread in Southeast Asian lowland forests, the species has disappeared from most of its range in recent decades. Like other Asian bears, it is imperiled by use in traditional medicine as well as by deforestation. In Cambodia, WWF camera traps have documented the sun bear's presence in the Eastern Plains Landscape, which is also home to Sarus cranes, Siamese crocodiles and giant ibis.

Mekong Giant Catfish

Mekong giant catfish illustration

Growing to more than 9 feet long and weighing in excess of 700 pounds, the critically endangered Mekong giant catfish is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish. Adults are toothless and feed primarily on algae. The species’ range once covered nearly the entire length of the Mekong River (the only place in the world where it occurs) but is now confined to the Lower Mekong. Biologists estimate that the population has dropped about 90% in the past decade, due primarily to overfishing and habitat loss.

Cantor's Giant Softshell Turtle

Cantor's Giant Softshell Turtle illustration

This endangered turtle spends much of its life buried on river bottoms, motionless, waiting to snap up passing crustaceans, mollusks and fish. It can grow up to 6 feet long. Though its range extends from eastern and southern India to Vietnam, Indonesia, China and the Philippines, the Cantor’s giant softshell has disappeared from much of its habitat. Locally abundant numbers occur along parts of the Mekong River.

Life Downstream by Denise Hruby, photographs by Thomas Cristofoletti, video by Nicolas Axelrod

In a national park at the heart of what was once called the Plain of Reeds, a fishing family shares the value of natural water flows, lively fishing grounds, abundant bird populations—and the power of keeping a close connection to home.

Cu and his son-in-law, Tri, row past another fishing boat in Vietnam’s Tram Chim National Park, where over 230 bird species live—including the famed Sarus crane.

With the sort of easy precision that comes only with time, Pham Huu Tri drives his hand into the calm water and pulls out a square, fine-meshed cage. Inside, a handful of fish, each hardly the size of a finger, flop about, smacking and bouncing off the sides of their enclosure. It is just past 6 a.m., and the day's first sunbeams imbue the Mekong Delta with a warm, yellowish glow.

Tri's father-in-law and fishing companion, Tran Van Cu, lifts the hatch atop their long, flat boat and Tri pours the fish into a built-in, watery compartment as they rest atop the rippling surface. The seagrass and amaranth that flourish here jiggle. Red-winged dragonflies swirl around the boat.

It's a decent catch, and a good sign for the day to come. With a 10-foot-long bamboo stick, Tri glides the boat toward the next trap, hidden somewhere inside the wetland treasure known as Tram Chim National Park.

Tri is 38. He has never left southern Vietnam and says that people have always fished in the park’s pristine wetlands, even before some gained the legal right to do so. It’s not until recently, however, that inhabitants like Tri came to understand the fragile balance between the park and the Mekong River, the reasons for the abundance of fish, plant and bird species. Now, he works with park authorities and is eager to teach others what he’s learned.

For Tri and Cu, Tram Chim is the source of most of their food, the basis of their families’ livelihoods, and the center of their lives.

Fishermen on the Mekong

Cu pulls a fishing net from the water as Tri steadies the boat. Tram Chim was the country’s first protected wetland to grant local communities legal access to its natural resources.

Even in the world’s most remote places, the sounds of nature are often still interrupted by some sign of civilization—the engine of a boat or the squealing of a bicycle. But as Tri’s boat skims the water, there is none of that. The hull casts tiny waves across the reflection of a vibrant green eleocharis reed. The bushy tops of the surrounding melaleuca trees teem with grey egrets; from a distance, their bodies resemble long cotton swabs. In the dry season, the egrets are joined by the iconic Sarus cranes, a symbol of longevity and loyalty in Asia. Males and females of the increasingly rare species mate for life.

Nestled in the Mekong Delta close to the Cambodian border, Tram Chim is part of the Plain of Reeds, a vast stretch of grass- and swampland that once covered more than 1.7 million acres of the delta, which is about double the size of the state of New Jersey. Today it is still bustling with life—a refuge for endangered bird and fish species and listed under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.

But development has destroyed half of the world’s wetlands, at tremendous cost to biodiversity and resources like food, timber and drinking water. It has increased the impacts of climate change, such as flooding and drought, and added to pollution and species loss. In southern Vietnam, the rapidly growing population has claimed most of the Plain of Reeds, turning it into one rice paddy after another. So much of the historic wetland has disappeared that instead of being referred to as a wetland, this area is now simply called “the rice bowl of Vietnam.” Tram Chim stands as one of the Plain of Reeds’ last strongholds.

In close collaboration with the park’s management staff, and with long-term support from The Coca-Cola Company, WWF has taken a unique approach to preserving and restoring the park’s natural state. Fishermen like Tri and Cu are a vital component of that work.

Shared Bounty

Strictly speaking, Tri and Cu could fish elsewhere. It would only take the well-attuned father- and son-in-law a few minutes to walk to the streams of the delta, where fish are plentiful. But in the wet season, torrential rains turn the Mekong into a ferocious river. For small fishing boats like Tri and Cu’s, it’s too difficult to navigate.

Besides, Tri explains, the abundance of fish inside the park, untapped and just the cast of a hook away, is too tempting. Cu says that back when it was illegal he, like most other fishermen in the area, used to sneak past the guards and rangers to fish there.

Birds in Tram Chim National Park

Oriental darters perch in the treetops. Tram Chim supports nine threatened species of bird.

“But it was dangerous, and we were always worried about the rangers. You had to go quietly.” They would risk a hefty fine if they were caught, he says as he pulls in a net he set out the previous day. Bronze featherbacks, Asian redtailed catfish and Jullien’s mud carp are swept up, as well as small crabs, weeds and even a water snake. The nets are easy to pull in, he says, and smiles at his son-in-law. At age 74, Cu’s knees and joints bother him, and the younger fisherman is tasked with the heavier traps.

Viet Hoang, freshwater coordinator for WWF-Vietnam, watches the duo through thick, black-framed glasses. He’s worked with them since 2009, when after two years of study, WWF suggested setting up user groups of almost 200 households that would be allowed to tap the park’s resources. Today, he’s satisfied with what he sees.

“When we started working here, we found that there were conflicts between the park and the local community. The park is a bit over 18,000 acres of natural area—about 1% of the Plain of Reeds’ original size—and it’s surrounded by 50,000 people in six communes. Those people are very poor and live on meager resources, but for a long time they were not allowed to enter the park, which they felt was really unfair. So, many of them went to the park and did some illegal fishing,” Viet says.

But why not pull the communities onto your side, WWF asked, instead of fighting them? The poorest and most vulnerable households have been part of this unique management approach that allows them to fish inside Tram Chim, a best-practice example for other parks.

Cu and Tri are part of one such user group, and say it has done more than secure their family’s food supply during the wet season.

“It’s much better to be in a user group. We don’t have to go fishing at night anymore. Now I can do it in the morning,” says Tri. He’s proud of his work, and there’s no reason to hide it anymore.

In return, the two men have turned into ambassadors of sorts for the park and help preserve it. They were educated on the importance of the park’s biodiversity and on invasive species like the golden apple snail, whose berry-shaped eggs they pluck. They were also taught to reject harmful fishing methods like deadly chemicals and electrofishing.

To explain his role, Tri looks at the water snake he just caught. The snake is a shimmery near-black and it is already dead. Had it still been alive, Tri would have released it back into the water, instead of barbecuing it as a crispy snack.

“Releasing the snake is a requirement of the park, because the snakes are important for the ecosystem,” he says. In his soft voice, Tri goes on to explain that they also only catch a small number of juvenile fish, “because when they grow up, they swim up the Mekong and lay eggs.”

Life Upstream

“Up the Mekong” is a broad description. The river starts its journey in the Himalayas and meanders through Tibet, China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia before it empties into the South China Sea, east of Vietnam. It’s the world’s second-most- biodiverse river, after the Amazon. Of its 1,300 known fish species, 600 are migrants that require different habitats during their life cycles and can travel long distances to lay their eggs.

“Why do fish take the pain of migrating upstream over such long distances?” asks Dr. Eric Baran, senior scientist at the WorldFish Center, an international research organization. “Well, a big river like the Mekong carries a lot and flushes everything downwards, including fish eggs and juveniles. Parent fishes swim far upstream so that their offspring have time to grow during the drift with the current, and reach the rich downstream floodplains to feed and grow there. Without that long-distance effort, the juveniles would get flushed straight into the sea.”

Downstream ecosystems like Tram Chim offer rich and productive habitats for fish to grow up in before they return to the faster-flowing Mekong and the long slog back upstream. The majority of these fish make it to spawning grounds; millions, however, end up on the breakfast, lunch and dinner tables of the nearly 180 million people in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Water and Tram Chim

Understanding and restoring natural water flow and water levels is at the heart of efforts to protect Tram Chim's wildlife and way of life. Accordingly, park officials, supported by WWF scientists and researchers, are constantly assessing the presence, movements and effects of water in the park. The graphic below shows the park's recent inundation levels against ideal conditions—and demonstrates that much of the park is far too wet.

Tram Chim Hydrological map

Hydrological Conditions
  • no target
  • dry
  • good
  • wet
  • too wet

Tri’s house is less than a minute’s walk from the ranger station where he and Cu have their fishing gear checked by park rangers before they enter the park each morning. When they are done fishing, they return to the station to report their catch and have it weighed. They are committed participants in this management system, which helps keep Tram Chim’s natural bounty in balance. Once cleared by the rangers, they head home.

At Tri’s house—a patchwork of wooden beams with gaps that let in the sunshine—his wife Trau hovers over a huge wok that is scratched and burned from years of use. Mud carps sizzle in oil, salt and chili. When Tri hands off his morning’s catch of crabs, she immediately begins cleaning and cooking those as well.

It’s only 10 a.m., but the family has been up for almost six hours, and the belly of their 11-year-old son Khanh is grumbling. In a diet that consists almost entirely of fish and rice, he says, fried snakefish is his favorite food.

It’s a similar picture around town: Every little food stall and restaurant seems to serve fish exclusively, whether it's turned into savory fried patties; used in omelets, soups and stir-fries; or transformed into fish sauce, the region’s ubiquitous condiment.

None of these fish would be in Tram Chim if it weren’t for the park’s connection to the Mekong. The rich alluvial silt that flows downstream forms the basic environment in which fish can grow. A healthy hydrology also nurtures couch grass, sedges and watermeal, as well as small crustaceans, which in turn entice water birds. And the river carries the necessary nutrients to help grow rice at four times the yield that was seen in this region four decades ago.

“If it weren't for the silt from the Mekong, the park wouldn’t be as unique,” says park director Nguyen Van Hung. But Tram Chim’s relationship with the river is also its biggest weakness. Hundreds of miles upstream, Cambodia and Laos, under pressure to develop new energy and economic resources for their people, are building dams on the Mekong and its tributaries. Those dams, which will not only block fish from migrating but keep sediment from flowing downstream, are the “biggest and most significant threat” to the park’s fragile ecosystem, Hung says.

Dams cause changes in “water quality, water quantity and the timing of water flow changes,” he says. “This means, for example, that the flooding season that historically started in July now starts later.” He adds that once the population of any one species—a water plant or crustacean, for instance—diminishes, other species that depend on them could quickly follow.

Dams, however, are only one example of the mounting pressure that the socioeconomic development of the region is having on the ecosystem. In addition to upstream activities like agriculture, deforestation and pollution, which damage both water quality and water quantity downstream, there are the effects of climate change. Scientists have already observed irregular river flows and flooding periods, as well as a reduction in the river-carried sediments and nutrients that refresh Tram Chim and restore the coast of the Mekong Delta. In fact, evidence shows that the delta is actually sinking and shrinking, leading to the infiltration of saltier water farther and farther upstream—and putting Tram Chim in yet another squeeze. 

“I am really not sure if we can maintain the same biodiversity or if some species will become extinct,” says Hung. “The water flow really changes the conditions.”

Villagers clean and pick fish to sell at a local market. Fishing provides a key source of income for many of the communities living near the park, as well as all along the Mekong.

The Value of Fish and Fowl

In spite of all that, Tri insists his community is excited about the future. WWF is supporting a burgeoning tourism business in the park, he says—an expansion of opportunities for local people to show visitors from Ho Chi Minh City and beyond the landscapes and lives of the people who live here.

While fishing earns Tri enough to meet the basic needs of his family, he, like many breadwinners, hopes to offer them a better life. For him, that would mean things as simple as providing a concrete house that doesn’t shake when strong winds blow over the delta, and enabling his sons to go to university. They study hard, he says, and are too smart to become fishermen like their father and grandfather.

He says that showing tourists how to fish might bring his family much-needed income, but at the same time he is thankful for what he has. “I wish there was more tourism development for the park,” says Tri. “But now, I just do everything the best I can for the future of my family.”

A fisherman’s wife cleans vegetables

Thao, a fisherman’s wife, cleans vegetables harvested legally within the park.

On the way to an observation tower built to encourage tourists to visit, WWF’s Viet Hoang leads a small group along a waterway surrounded by a thick wall of melaleuca trees that look like a stage curtain. Oriental darters fly past while a family of water buffaloes grazes on the slightly raised ground of an engineered levee.

Viet points out that the dikes were built to solve one problem, but soon came to cause another. In the dry season, he explains, forest fires used to plague the area. Although trees grew back quickly, the park management could be held responsible for such fires, no matter the cause. So a massive system of dikes was built with the sole purpose of keeping water inside the park year-round. Unfortunately, the policy backfired.

Each of Tram Chim’s different habitats demands a different system of water movements—a unique hydrological cycle—that the park had supported naturally. With the dikes, trees like the melaleuca started to die off— essentially, they drowned.

“The eleocharis is another one,” Viet says, pointing at the seemingly ubiquitous green grassy rushes rustling above the water. “It’s food for the Sarus crane. The plants need to be dry for four to five months of the year. If it’s flooded year-round, the plants die and there is no food for the cranes.”

After the dikes’ installation raised water levels in the park, the number of Sarus cranes—and other bird species that thrive in lower water levels—began to decline.

“When we started working here, we talked to experts and studied the history of the park, the hydrological regime of the park, and we think the way it was managed was not suitable for Tram Chim,” Viet says. After several studies, WWF and park management decided to mimic the historical Mekong hydrological regime and take down parts of the elaborate dike system at prime locations to restore natural water flows. And while their numbers are still alarmingly low, the cranes began to return.

Today, Tram Chim (which translates roughly as “bird swamp”) supports nine globally threatened bird species and is home to more than 20,000 water birds in the dry season. The newly constructed observation tower puts tourists eye-to-eye with nesting birds. Just 10 feet from the leaf- and twig-covered platform, a young Oriental darter frantically cleans his plumage; his nest-mate appears to be yawning. Their mother returns, her throat filled with treats from the park, and quickly feeds her chicks, pushing the food past their wide-open beaks. As soon as she leaves, the siblings join the greedy screams of hundreds of juvenile egrets, cormorants and darters. It is a deafening declaration of life.

The Center of their Lives

For the park rangers, waking up to a concert of trilling, tweeting and chirping is the best part of their job. They sleep on the edges of the park, typically in huts on stilts, and birdcalls signal the beginning of their workday on the winding waterways.

Cu sits in Tri’s house with Tri’s wife and son.

Cu sits in Tri’s house with Tri’s wife and son. They are among the 50,000 people who live closest to Tram Chim and are working with rangers to protect wetlands and a way of life.

Tri regularly meets a ranger when he is out with Cu; friendly words are exchanged. In the evenings, rangers and fishermen sit together, sharing homemade rice wine, roasted snails and fried snakehead fish. They often sing, and Tri always seems to be the one to encourage people to share just one more song before calling it a night.

The rangers and Tri agree that these cheerful gatherings would have been impossible five years ago, when fishing in the park was illegal. Tri is one of the growing contingent who understand both sides: before he was a fisherman, he was a park guard. Ranking lower than the rangers, and with little experience, Tri received a meager wage. Still, he remembers those days fondly, not least because it was through his job that he got to know his wife, Trau.

“I was fishing in the park, together with my brother,” Trau says.

“And I was a guard, so when I found them, I had to tell them off,” Tri interjects.

“But then,” Trau continues, “he kept coming to our house to explain why we couldn’t fish in the park.”

Tri laughs sheepishly and admits: “When I first saw her, that was it. Love struck. I knew I had to make a move, so I needed the excuse to visit her at her house.”

“I know I must go away for university, but as soon as I graduate, I will return. This park has everything. It has birds, fish, vegetables, and there is the river. Definitely, I want to live here.”

Tri's son

Stories like this make Tri thoughtful. More than once, Tram Chim National Park has played a fateful role in his life. As best he can, he tries to pass his love and appreciation of Tram Chim on to his three sons. He’s proud that they do well in school, and that they have set themselves goals in life.

At 11, his son Khanh has his mind full of soccer, but knows he must concentrate on his studies. He wants to go to medical school, “so I can take care of the health of my whole family.” He smiles, showing a big gap between his front teeth.

On the other hand, the thought of ever leaving Tram Chim bewilders Khanh. “I know I must go away for university,” he says, “but as soon as I graduate, I will return.” Looking from his mother to his father, he says, “This park has everything. It has birds, fish, vegetables, and there is the river. Definitely, I want to live here.”

Fresh water may be our hardest working resource It is at the center of life itself.

It sustains us, both directly and through the fish, shellfish and plants we eat. It provides drinking water and sanitation. It powers homes, businesses, transportation and economies. Fresh water sustains whole ecosystems that support both people and wildlife.

Food, water and energy security are closely intertwined with ecosystem health.

This interdependence means that efforts to secure one aspect can easily destabilize others. For example, attempts to boost agricultural productivity may lead to increased demands for water and energy inputs, which could impact biodiversity and ecosystem services. Similarly, the need for power generation could pull much-needed water out of the ecosystems that depend on fresh water for everything from drinking water to healthy fish stocks. Finding the right balance is the key.

Water is needed for energy production Healthy Ecosystems Water is needed for food production
Energy is used for storing cleaning and transporting water Food production affects water availability
Energy Food
Food production uses a lot of energy Energy can be produced from food crops

Case Study: The Mekong

map of location of Don Sahong dam Location of the Don Sahong dam

Seeking solutions along the Mekong

Over the next 10 years, demand for electricity in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam is expected to grow by 6% to 7% annually.

To meet this demand and fulfill the unmet energy needs of millions of people in rural areas, the region will look to the Mekong River, which still remains close to untapped and holds the potential to be Southeast Asia’s powerhouse.

But the Mekong and its countless tributaries already serve as the primary source of protein for 60 million people. So the question of how to access the energy potential of the Mekong must be thoughtfully addressed.

One approach is hydropower. While dams offer a cleaner source of energy than coal or other traditional power sources, some (such as the Don Sahong dam proposed for southern Laos) could decrease downstream fish stocks by 80% and put the health of entire ecosystems at risk.

We must find a solution, and WWF is supporting a 10-year moratorium on hydropower projects on the Lower Mekong in the hopes of achieving a smart balance.

For example, the Thako Water Diversion Project would produce almost the same amount of electricity as Don Sahong without blocking the channel and preventing fish migration. Both projects would impact the same watershed near the Khone Phapheng falls in Laos, so the choice represents a true crossroads: As we seek to meet the needs of people and wildlife, which path will we choose?

Our needs are linked to the health of freshwater ecosystems.

Of all the water on the planet, only 3% is fresh, and less than 1% is both fresh and accessible. Most of the world’s fresh water is used for food and energy production, and these human demands put a strain on freshwater ecosystems.

Globally, food production accounts for around:


of energy use


of water use

In industrialized countries, energy generation accounts for:


of freshwater use

But is there enough to go around?

While the world's poorest continue to be most vulnerable when resources fail, food, water and energy security issues affect—and will increasingly impact—us all.

Of the 7 billion people on earth today:


≈ 1 billion suffer from hunger


768 million lack access to clean water supply


1.4 billion lack access to a reliable electric supply

Demand is Increasing.

Current demand is already impacting freshwater ecosystems—they’re now in worse shape than their forest, grassland or coastal counterparts worldwide. With the human population predicted to swell by 2 billion by 2050, the challenge of protecting these resources while providing everyone with adequate food, water and energy will continue to intensify.

By 2035,

energy use

will increase by


...which will increase

water use



Source: World Bank, 2014


food production

must increase by


by 2050, which will increase water use for irrigation by at least 11%

In 2030, global freshwater demand is projected to exceed current supply

by more than


by 2050, which will increase water use for irrigation by at least 11%

Source: FAO, 2009

Sources: WWF’s Living Planet Report 2014, except as noted.

Swimming With the Tide by Denise Hruby, video by Nicolas Axelrod

“Over there!” Lang, the operator of a small tour boat, points his wiry arm. Several hundred feet away, a gray bump breaks through the surface of the water, forming a rounded bow before slowly sinking back into the murky waters. An Irrawaddy dolphin. Shortly after, another pops up. Then another.

The Anlung Cheutal “dolphin pool” is in a stretch of the Mekong River in northernmost Cambodia. It is one of the best places to see the Irrawaddy dolphin, one of only seven river dolphin species in the world, in its natural habitat. The dolphin pool, nestled between the borders of Cambodia and Laos, is a raw, earthly paradise of waterfalls that stretches for miles, passing sandy islands and flooded forests of braided tree trunks bent into the current like giants trying to defeat the river’s flow.

Thousands of tourists flock here each year, providing a vital income for the pristine but poverty-stricken region. First and foremost, Lang explains, they come for the dolphins.

Morning at Anlung Cheutal dolphin pool in Cambodia. Much of the wildlife, habitats and culture of the river will be harmed if the Don Sahong dam is built.

“Dolphins are like humans,” he says, his eyes still fixed on the mammals. “Sometimes they swim around alone, but they like to meet, and then they chit-chat and show their happiness.” Just seeing the dolphins makes Lang happy, he says, but he also knows that the species is close to extinction: only around 85 individuals remain in this stretch of the river. This is why Lang is a river guard as well as a tour operator.

People-driven impacts such as noise pollution from shipping, mercury pollution from gold mining, and sedimentation are accelerating changes in the dolphins’ environment and cutting into the number of fish. In recent decades, dolphin numbers have plummeted.

But most responsible for the decline, experts say, are curtain-like gillnets cast by local fishermen. Dolphin senses can perceive the fish that have become entangled, but not the nets themselves. What looks like easy, abundant prey quickly becomes their demise: once the dolphins are entangled in the nets, they drown.

Irrawaddy dolphin breaching

An Irrawaddy Dolphin in the Mekong

Over the past nine years, through daily patrols, a network of informants, and educational programs, the river guards have protected the dolphins from illegal fishing practices. With support from WWF, the guards have been equipped with GPS systems that allow them to better track and record their efforts—and to change their routes if the mammals move. Since they started, patrol members say, dolphin deaths have dropped by nearly two-thirds.

The fight to protect them, however, is far from over.

In neighboring Laos, approximately half a mile upstream from the dolphin pool, preparations for a hydropower dam are under way. A coalition including WWF, the River Coalition of Cambodia, several fishing communities and some feisty locals are fighting the dam with petitions and protests. They know just how much is at stake: the proposed Don Sahong dam will block the only channel known to allow fish to migrate year-round. This stretch of the river is vital for spawning, and experts fear that many species—including the dolphins—could face extinction if the dam is allowed to proceed.

Julia Goss, a Fulbright scholar who has been researching the behavior of dolphins for a year, says that the dam would leave little hope for the individual dolphins in Anlung Cheutal, which spans both countries. The explosions needed to excavate the soil could kill them instantly, or damage their echolocation senses and effectively leave them blind in the dark waters. For the population further downstream, it’s the impact on fish migration and water hydrology she fears the most. “Thirty-four percent of their entire range will be gone. It will definitely be a big hit to the population.”

When talking about the dam, well-informed locals most commonly use the word “disaster.” Almost everyone here lives off the fish they catch in the Mekong, which also nourishes the fertile soil they rely on for growing rice, winter melon and other crops. If the locals are lucky, tourists wanting to see dolphins and waterfalls bring them a little extra income.

But the dam, says Lang, jeopardizes people’s entire existence, as well as the dolphins he loves. “They planned the dam as if there were no people downstream,” he says.

It’s ironic that the dam is being built to bring development to regions in Southeast Asia that are still off the grid—like Lang’s entire community, where the day is still dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. Like Lang, many people say they’d like to exchange their torches and generators for affordable electricity.

But the dolphins and fish, and the health of the river that sustains them all, isn't a price they are willing to pay.

Explore More

World Wildlife magazine provides an inspiring, in-depth look at the connections between animals, people and our planet. Published quarterly by WWF, the magazine helps make you a part of our efforts to solve some of the most pressing issues facing the natural world.

View all issues