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The Mekong River: Threats to an Ecological Lifeline

The Mekong River, originating from the Tibetan plateau, flows over 4,200 kilometers through China, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea. It ranks as one of Asia’s largest and the world’s seventh-largest rivers.

This once-mighty river now faces severe threats, primarily from numerous Chinese dams. These developments imperil not only the river itself but also the livelihoods of countless fishermen and farmers who have historically depended on the Mekong’s resources. The river has been a vital source of fish for sustenance and trade, as well as water for irrigating crops.

The extensive construction of Chinese dams, including 11 mainstem dams and over 120 smaller ones, has resulted in erratic water levels and interfered with fish migration and spawning. Additionally, the river’s nutrient levels have significantly decreased, putting the entire ecosystem at risk, including its more than 500 known fish species.

To exacerbate matters, China has also financed the construction of additional dams in Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand. The primary objective is electricity production and enabling large-tonnage ships to navigate further upstream to Luang Prabang, the ancient capital of Laos, creating a new trade route.

These developments have dire implications for the local population. Many vulnerable communities dependent on cross-border river basins are now at risk of falling into extreme poverty, with estimates suggesting that by 2030, 56 million people in the region could be living in such conditions.

These changes have transformed the Mekong River, once a lifeline for the region, into an unpredictable and perilous force. Its unpredictable water levels make it challenging for people to maintain their traditional ways of life, as they never know whether there will be too much or too little water. When the water level is excessive or insufficient, fish populations decline, depriving locals of not only food but also a source of income.

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