The Mekong River is located in Southeast Asia. With its headwaters in the Tibetan Plateau, the river flows approximately 4,900 kilometers on its way to its delta, located in Cambodia and Vietnam, before emptying into the South China Sea. The basin includes the Tonle Sap, a large freshwater lake located in the lower part of the basin that is both a biodiversity hotspot as well as the center of the world’s most productive inland fishery. The major focus and greatest benefit of the partnership in this region will be in the lower Mekong, defined as the reach from where the river crosses the southern Chinese border to the sea, an area home to more than 60 million people.
The Mekong spans six countries including China, Myanmar, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Laos), Kingdom of Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Primary engagement will be in the lower Mekong Basin, which consists of Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam—an area where the partnership feels there is the greatest potential to influence future development.
The Mekong River supports the largest inland fishery in the world, with total production in 2008 of 3.9 million tons, valued at between US$3.9-7 billion. Of the 60 million people who live in the lower Mekong Basin, 80 percent rely directly on the river system for their food and livelihoods. In Laos and Cambodia for instance, respectively 47 percent and 80 percent of animal protein comes from freshwater fisheries, of which 90 percent is from capture fisheries.
Vietnam's part of the delta is home to 17 million people, and contributes more than 50 percent of the country’s staple food crops. It is the source for 60 percent of the fish production in Vietnam, providing food for 40 million people and contributing 27 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).
From 1993 to 2005, economic growth and electricity demand in the Mekong region increased at an average annual rate of about eight percent. Power demand is expected to grow at six to seven percent annually to 2025. The total potential for hydropower is estimated at 53,000 MW, of which only about five percent is currently installed.
The ecoregions that make up the basin comprise an incredibly high diversity of habitats including deciduous dipterocarp forests, moist evergreen forests, karst limestone forests, open grasslands and savannas, upland plateaus, wetlands, and pristine riparian environments. These globally unique landscapes are home to no fewer than 20,000 species of plants, 1,200 bird species, 800 species of reptiles and amphibians and 430 mammal species—including Asian elephants and as many as 350 tigers (one of the world’s largest populations).
Moreover, new species continue to be described. Between 1997 and 2007 alone, 1,059 new species were discovered in the Greater Mekong. The overall biological significance and distinctiveness is reflected by the fact that World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has identified four of the basin areas as the world’s most unique and important ecoregions.
The largest threat to the conservation values of the river system is from the series of dams and other hydropower projects planned for the river’s mainstream and tributaries. Such impacts on river ecosystems would have flow-on effects to dependent communities and economies. These impacts are expected to include a growing inequality in the lower Mekong Basin countries and an increase in poverty in the short and medium term, especially among the poor in rural and urban riparian areas. Food security is also likely to be affected by reductions in fisheries production and impacts on agricultural productivity due to inundation and changed water levels, and likely changes to access rights for fishers and farmers.
There are also significant threats unrelated to hydropower development:
- Sand mining, to provide material for the construction industry. Locally, this has resulted in riverbank collapse and loss of property and, at a basin scale, a reduction in sediment to the delta and wetlands.
- Over-fishing. Essentially, most wetlands are open access resources. This has, since the 1990s, lead to overexploitation of aquatic resources for commercial purposes. Increased efficiency of fishing methods, modern equipment and the growing number of motorized boats in recent years have intensified competition among fishers as reflected in overall decreased fish landings.
- Pollution, particularly from agriculture and residential runoff. While water quality in the basin is generally good, some areas particularly in Vietnam and Thailand suffer serious water pollution.
- Climate change is expected to contribute to more extreme weather events like heavy rainfall, prolonged droughts, increased water needs due to high temperatures, and severe storms.
Few places on Earth demonstrate in such dramatic terms the fundamental links between human and ecosystem well being. Around 80% of the population depends on the productive capacity of healthy natural systems to sustain key ecosystem services such as clean water, food and fiber. In the Greater Mekong, biodiversity occurs together with rapidly growing economies and human populations. The WWF Network Conservation Committee has rightfully deemed the “Mekong Complex” as one of the network’s “High Priority Places."
From the standpoint of the region’s freshwater systems (which impact nearly every aspect of conservation and development in the region), the single most important concern is the rapid development of hydropower installations and the poor track record of backers to undertake adequate planning and risk assessment for these projects. There has been an upsurge in interest in hydropower development in the Mekong region. Many new proposals to develop hydropower schemes are being advanced by Mekong governments and the private sector, both on the tributaries; and on the Lao, Lao-Thai and Cambodian reaches of the Mekong mainstream; more projects are also promoted in the Salween and in the other river systems in Vietnam.
The partners' vision is a Mekong River where the integrity, biodiversity and productivity of the basin, the river, its wetlands and delta continue to support both wildlife and livelihoods; and where hydropower is developed in a way that optimizes environmental, economic and social outcomes.