Posted by: shipbright | March 2, 2010

The Mekong River and Hydro-politics…Tibetan plateau series #6

The Mekong River…

The name evokes images of a slow-moving muddy river surrounded by a hot and steamy jungle, buzzing insects and visions of the Vietnam War.  I think of Marlon Brando, in the movie Apocalypse Now – and its inspiration Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad, having descended into his madness, surrounded by local tribesmen muttering to himself…”the horror, the horror”.  To me the Mekong evokes memories of conflict. While it gives life to millions of people from its origins in the Tibetan Plateau to the “Nine Dragons” delta in Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea, The Mekong River is still very much a river of conflict.

The Mekong is the 12th longest river in the world and sustains over 60 million people.  It falls approximately 5,000 meters [~16,500 feet~] along its 2,600 mile journey.  Six countries-China, Myanmar [Burma], Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam- share the Mekong River’s waters-all with different needs and priorities for their people.

The Mekong has always been shrouded in some mystery as the origin of the river was not certified until October 1999.  Early explorers were challenged by its many waterfalls, rapids and tributaries.  Its source was confirmed by the Chinese government in 1999 as beginning at Lasagongma creek which is fed by the glacier on the north side of Mt. Guosongmucha.

[ reference and ]

What makes the Mekong a study in trans-boundary water issues and hydro-politics is that the river begins in the Tibetan plateau of China, flows southeast between Myanmar [Burma] and Laos, then most of the border between Laos and Thailand, into Cambodia and then into Vietnam where it empties into the South China Sea.  Many people, many countries, many needs.

To address the complex issues of the Mekong River the Mekong River Commission [MRC] was created in 1995.  The problem is that the upriver country, China, refused to become a member of the Commission…China and Myanmar are “dialogue partners” leaving Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam as the only real partners.  Since China controls the source of the Mekong they dismiss the downstream countries concerns as China builds more and more dams for hydro-power and agricultural use of the water.  This leaves the downstream people in a precarious position…

An organization monitoring the issues of the Mekong is the Living Rivers Siam organization which has good information on the Mekong as well.  The following video is in Thai with English subtitles:

The dam construction and rapids demolition are combining with issues such as population growth, municipal storm water and sewage discharges into the river, increased sedimentation from deforestation, and pollution from agriculture/industrial sources– all of which are poorly regulated and have lax enforcement.

The Mekong also has a rich biodiversity which is at risk from attitudes that say “I am not responsible for what happens downstream”.  Some species are found nowhere else in the world.  The Mekong Catfish is a startling species of fish that is at risk along with freshwater dolphins and manatees.  The picture below is of a Mekong catfish weighing in at 646 Lbs.  Who’s going swimming?

While the Brahmaputra River impacts the lives of Indians and Bangladeshis the Mekong impacts the people of Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam…China has water power over all these people.  Power of life.  Throw into this complex multinational trans-boundary challenge the diminishing seasonal glacier melt water from disappearing Tibetan plateau glaciers and the entire equation becomes even more difficult.

The Mekong is a case study in hydro-politics and Asian water security.  It is yet another reminder that the environment and the economy are inextricably intertwined and to ignore one without paying attention to the other is a recipe for disaster.  Which lead us to our last posting on the Tibetan Plateau series: Asian water security.

Like the island nation of Kiribati, the Greenland glaciers, and the story of Cochabamba, Bolivia… The Mekong River is an exotic story on the other side of the earth from where I sit but it is a story like the wind, as Laurens van Der Post said, “it comes from a far off place but we feel it here”



  1. […] Mekong river for survival […]

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