Preserving the lifeline of Southeast Asia: the urgent call to protect the Mekong River Basin

Aerial of sunset, with islets in front and misty mountains at the back, Cambodia

In the heart of Southeast Asia lies a lifeline crucial for both humans and wildlife: the Mekong River. Often referred to by those in the region as the “mother of all things,” the Mekong River holds immense cultural significance. Traditional communities deeply cherish their connection to the river, engaging in festivals and daily rituals that form an essential part of their cultural heritage. Similarly, the fish of the Mekong hold profound importance, having been integral to the lives, culinary traditions, and cultural identities of the people within the river basin for centuries. However, the story of this majestic river has taken a troubling turn since the commencement of large-scale dam constructions in 1965. While dams are often touted as sources of renewable energy and flood management solutions, their adverse environmental impacts on the Mekong ecosystem cannot be ignored.

The Mekong River Basin is a sanctuary for an extraordinary array of wildlife, particularly its dazzlingly diverse fish species. With a staggering 1,148 fish species officially recognized, the Mekong is a global hotspot for freshwater biodiversity. Among its inhabitants are the world's two largest freshwater fish: the colossal giant catfish, reaching lengths of nearly three yards and weighing a staggering 645 pounds, and the giant freshwater stingray. However, despite their grandeur, these iconic species face an uncertain future. Startling evidence in a WWF report “Mekong’s Forgotten Fishes” reveals that 74 fish species in the Mekong are assessed as at risk of extinction, with 18 species now classified as critically endangered. The Lower Mekong, stretching beneath the China border, has seen about 17% of its rivers impacted primarily due to dam constructions in China, according to a 2022 WWF study. The repercussions of these interventions reverberate far downstream, affecting communities and wildlife alike. One of the most affected groups is the migratory fish essential for the region's ecological balance and the livelihoods of millions of people.

The connectivity of river systems is a fundamental aspect often overlooked, yet crucial to understanding the far-reaching impacts of human interventions. As exemplified by the Mekong River, actions at the upper reaches of a river can cascade down, affecting ecosystems and communities hundreds of miles away. Migratory fish face numerous threats from dam constructions, including obstruction of their movement for spawning and migration, direct harm from turbine operations, and the disruption of natural river flows. These challenges are compounded by other threats such as destructive fishing practices, habitat loss, sand extraction, and the introduction of invasive species. In the case of the Mekong, the well-being of both humans and fish is intricately linked to the river's health. With 68 million people residing in its vicinity, the river sustains livelihoods, providing essential protein sources for millions, and plays a pivotal role in regional economies, serving as the largest inland fishery on the planet.

Around the world, species have recovered when given the chance. Small changes can have big consequences for fish, especially when conservation efforts are led and supported by local communities. And although many of the species in the Mekong are facing extinction, their final disappearance is not written in stone.

How people and fish exist in the Mekong

Amidst growing concerns about the conservation of freshwater resources, the Mekong Forgotten Fishes Report sheds light on innovative approaches to preserve and invest in the health of this vital waterway.

Recreational angling presents a promising avenue for economic development and conservation, although its current scale is limited. The region's diverse giant and novel freshwater fish offer significant potential to attract anglers worldwide. While stocked lakes feature native species like the Siamese giant barb and giant snakehead, non-native species pose a threat if they escape. Recreational angling on the river itself, though limited, is gaining traction, particularly in Cambodia and Lao PDR, where operators offer trips targeting Mekong giant catfish and giant freshwater stingrays. However, concerns arise regarding governance and monitoring, especially in conservation areas like Nakai-Nam Theun National Park. In the Mekong Delta, recreational angling is more established, with tourists being offered experiences like catching fish bare-handed. While recreational angling holds potential for livelihoods and tourism, careful management is crucial to mitigate risks such as invasive species introduction and habitat damage. With effective management and community collaboration, promoting recreational angling in the Mekong Basin could contribute to species conservation and community well-being.

Rice-fish farming is an innovative farming practice that integrates fish into rice paddies, harnessing the natural synergy between the two ecosystems. As rice grows, it provides cover and food for fish, while the fish, in turn, help control pests and provide natural fertilization, enhancing rice yields. Additionally, fish disturb the soil, making it more porous and assisting with nutrient recycling. Some farmers have devised methods to increase water depth in their fields during the natural flood season, preventing fish from escaping and creating a thriving aquatic habitat. Recognizing the potential of rice-fish farming to promote sustainability, WWF is actively collaborating with farmers to implement floating rice and fish farming during the flood season. This initiative aims to restore natural sediment deposition, improve soil fertility and health, and counteract land subsidence. Moreover, it creates new markets and enhances the resilience and income of farmers, demonstrating the transformative power of sustainable farming practices in the Mekong region. By safeguarding fish populations and maintaining healthy freshwater ecosystems, we can ensure the continued availability of essential resources such as food, water, and livelihoods for millions of people in the region.

A brighter future for the Mekong

Protecting the Mekong River basin is not just about preserving biodiversity; it is also about securing the well-being of communities that depend on the river for their livelihoods.

Fortunately, recent global initiatives, such as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, offer hope for the conservation and restoration of inland waters, including the Mekong. By joining efforts like the Freshwater Challenge, countries can work together to protect and restore critical habitats, implement sustainable management practices, and prevent the spread of invasive species. Additionally, an Emergency Recovery Plan for Freshwater Biodiversity, already in existence, provides a roadmap for comprehensive action to safeguard the freshwater ecosystem:

1. Let rivers flow more naturally

2. Improve water quality in freshwater ecosystems

3. Protect and restore critical habitats and species

4. End unsustainable management of resources

5. Prevent and control invasions by nonnative species

6. Protect free-flowing rivers and remove absolute river barriers

The people of the Mekong cannot afford to lose their freshwater fish or the freshwater ecosystems they inhabit. Rivers, lakes, and wetlands are their life support systems and the extraordinary diversity of fish within them is essential to their health. Reversing decades of decline will be difficult, but it is possible—if we act collectively and urgently.

Learn more about WWF's work in the Mekong and on freshwater