The magnificent Mekong River is facing big changes. Southeast Asia is a booming world region and it's hunger for energy is huge. To meet the growing need for energy there are plans to build a great number of dams in south China's Yunnan province, as well as in Laos and Cambodia; Milton Osborne, a long-term observer of Southeast Asia's development and river expert numbers 77 planned dams in Laos alone, partially on the main Mekong River, partially placed in tributaries. The first seven dams at the upper Mekong in China are already operating. More are under construction or planned there. Now Laos is building a first dam at Sanyabury (Xayabury) in the middle section of the Mekong. In an April 2014 statement the Laotian government announced the construction of this megadam by 23% for completed. In late 2013 there were news about the (secret) construction of a second dam in Laos at Don Sahong (4000 Islands). Additionally a dam construction in Cambodia at Stung Treng started. What does that mean for the river, it's ecology and the people living around?
A map of the Mekong River's course.
Huge Mekong is not only one of the biggest rivers in the world and by distance the largest in Southeast Asia, but also absolutely unique. Sourcing from the Tibetian plateau, crossing the six countries Tibet/China, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, after 4,800km it reaches the South China Sea at the Vietnamese shore.
The Chinese part of the river is called the upper Mekong or Lancang (Jiang) River, the part from Burma/Laos on downwards is the middle section of the river; the huge Mekong delta starts at the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh.
The Mekong River is unique in three certain points:
First it's biodiversity is extremely high; in fact it's hosting the second richest biodiversity of all the rivers in the world. Only the Amazon river in south America hosts a higher biodiversity. The Mekong is home to almost 1,000 freshwater fish species. Among them are more species of giant fish than in any other river in the world. The most famous one is the Giant Catfish, which grows up to 3 meters.
Second, the Mekong is the largest source of inland fishery in the world. It feeds some 65 million people. In Cambodia Mekong fish supplies 80 % of the protein nourishment of the whole population.
Third, the percentage of migratory fish is extremely high. Between 40 to 70 percent of the fish, including some of the biggest freshwater fish in the world, are migratory. Since the Mekong below China is still a free flowing river and until recently not very industrialized, yet there haven't many extinctions been observed. Even some very big fish like the dogeating catfish, though critically endangered, still managed to survive. The Giant Catfish is maybe still living in the river between Chiang Khong and Chiang Saen, but that's not sure; a few couples of Irrawaddy Dolphins still survived south of the 4000 Islands of Si Phan Don and Kratie.
But the Mekong is under threat. It is already overfished. A growing population increases the pressure on the river's wildlife year for year. For the Laotian and Cambodian populations there is a 100% growth expected within the next 20 years. Traffic and water pollution is rising. Urbanization takes place. But a cascade of dozends of dams on the main river alone will harm the ecology dramatically.
When this article was published first in September 2011, it was focussed on the Sanyabury dam in Laos. Since the rapid development brings up news all the time, the page will be updated from time to time. The Sanyabury dam and it's description is in many points characteristically for all the dams on the Mekong. The newer dam projects are pointed out in their particularities in the lower part of this page, as the Don Sahong dam, the Stung Treng dam and other projects.