Why is the Mekong River important?
More than 60 million people, from nearly 100 distinct ethnic groups, depend on the fisheries of the Mekong Basin for subsistence and livelihoods. The Mekong system is the most productive freshwater fishery in the world, boasting annual catches over 2.6 million metric tons with an economic value greater than $2 billion USD. It is also one of the most biologically rich rivers in the world, home to over 850 fish species. Rare aquatic life includes the endangered giant freshwater stingray that reaches about 8 feet in diameter, Mekong giant catfish growing to over 750 pounds, and the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphin.
Residents of the basin know the Mekong as “The River of Life” because it is an essential element of their existence. Many people get the bulk of their protein from its wild fish, and depend on its waters for farming, drinking, bathing, and transportation. When you ask a villager what the river means to them, a common answer is, “Everything. We cannot live without the river.”
Challenges the Mekong River faces
The Mekong Basin is undergoing rapid change. Impacts from habitat loss, mining, logging, pollution, hydropower, and overfishing are increasingly apparent. The region is developing fast, and limited data on the complete value of fisheries makes it difficult for decision-makers to factor this resource into plans. Several countries have approved investigations by local and international companies to prepare for construction of 11 mainstream hydropower dams. Many dams are also under construction or proposed on the major tributaries of the Mekong. A large number of Mekong fishes undertake long-distance migrations upstream from the river delta and the Tonlé Sap (Great Lake) of Cambodia, reaching as far north as the Yunnan Province of China. Large dams could provide much-needed income and electricity for developing nations in the Mekong Basin, where many people live on less than $1 USD per day (per capita GDP is US$280-360 in Cambodia, Lao PDR, and Vietnam). Unfortunately, large dams could also alter the ecology of the system by blocking migrations of keystone species, changing flow regimes, and altering sediment transport. If dams limit fisheries production they could reduce food security for rural villagers who depend on fish for survival. As the governments of the Mekong Basin continue to develop and struggle to reduce poverty, they will have many challenging decisions to face.