Mekong’s Fate

  The Mekong is the largest river in Indochina and one of the largest in Asia. It is is the eleventh longest river in the world (approx. 4880 km),...
Protests against the Xayaburi dam in Bangkok
The Mekong is the largest river in Indochina and one of the largest in Asia. It is is the eleventh longest river in the world (approx. 4880 km), its course runs from the plateau of Tibet until Vietnam. The Mekong is the largest inland freshwater fishery in the world and feeds an estimated more than 60 million people, benefitting also of its periodic floods, crucial for the maintenance of its ecosystem and for the fertility of the plains that border it. The Mekong produces, according to official estimates, a wealth of approximately $ 3 billion per year. The Mekong is the second largest water biodiversity reservoir in the world, second only to the Amazon.

The Mekong is at risk.

The threat comes from an imposing plan to build dams along its southern course, which runs from the Chinese province of Yunnan up to the delta in Vietnam. Things for the northern course are not going better: China, without consulting its southern “neighbors” and no sharing of environmental impact studies has already built 6 mega-dams on the Mekong (which in Chinese territory is called Lancang ) and has already started and / or put in another 14 to be completed over the next 5/10 years. The Chinese activity has already caused many problems to the river and to the people that depend on it, and more than one hundred thousand people have been displaced due to the construction of dams, most of them ethnic minorities.


The threats to the northern course make even more dangerous the planned interventions from Cambodia, Laos and Thailand along the southern course of the river for a total of 11 dams. In this case the more “active” country is Laos, which most of these dams will arise. The Laos’ activism, however, has damaged the remaining riparian countries.

In 1995 all the states crossed by the southern course of the Mekong River with the exception of Burma (which, along with China, has chosen the status of “dialogue partners”) have signed the “Mekong Agreement”. With this agreement they established the Mekong River Commission (MRC), an intergovernmental organization that aims to “promote and coordinate sustainable management and development of water resources for the common benefit of nations and the well-being of populations”. According to the Agreement, any intervention on the natural course of the river, including damming, must be submitted to the MRC for “prior consultation” that will lead to a shared agreement on the intervention, in order to protect the rights of the other riparian states and their peoples. It is highlighted, however, that no such consultation may result either in a veto power by other states or in a unilateral decision to proceed.

Laos has decided to profit from the “neutrality” of the provision. In 2011, ignoring the negative results of the prior consultations regarding the Xayaburi dam, Laos announced that it would continue its project. The works were regularly initiated the following year in a wave of protests by local people, governments of the other riparian countries and environmental groups. The event constituted an important precedent and in 2013 for the construction of the dam Don Sahong, the government of Vientiane merely notified the MRC of the project, and didn’t take the preliminary consultations provided.


As stated in the beginning, the Mekong is a key resource for the economic subsistence of the 60 million inhabitants and an equally unparalleled “reserve” of fish biodiversity. According to a “counter-environmental impact assessment” drawn up by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF)-Cambodia, the construction of the dam will block the channel Sahong Don Hou Sahong, which is the only way for the annual transmigration of fish in the Mekong. One does not need to be an expert of fish migration to understand the devastating consequences for the environment and for the people that live on (sustainable) fishing.

According to another study by the WWF, the most endangered species could be the Irrawaddy dolphin or Asiatic Orcella, a dolphin that inhabits the coasts, estuaries and the course of some rivers in South and South-East Asia. Today an estimated 100 specimens live in the Mekong, forced into a stretch of 190 km. The construction of the dam Don Sahong in this stretch of the river will require the extraction of millions of ton of rock with explosives whose sound waves could kill dolphins, which have highly sensitive hearing. Combined with the rise of shipping and the change in water quality, resulting in habitat degradation, the scenario does not seem the best


Local populations, environmental groups and NGOs in the area are fighting since a long time with demonstrations, scientific studies, public awareness campaigns, petitions, letters to governments and calls on the international community.

In recent months they scored some victories: on June 26, the government of Laos agreed to submit the draft of the dam Don Sahong to the MRC for prior consultations. Two days before a Thai court accepted the lawsuit filed in 2012 by 37 Thai villagers against an agreement signed by the government of Bangkok to purchase 95% of the energy produced by the Xayaburi dam after completion.

While it is clear how these two events are important signals of the future of the Mekong River and for a wider sharing of decisions regarding the use of its resources, it is also pignantly clear how these two events are false victories. The past has taught us that the prior consultations within the MRC are not sufficient to block the construction of mega-dams; not surprisingly, many observers see the condescending gesture of the Lao government about the dam of Don Sahong as a way to buy time. In the same way the decision of the Thai court does not guarantee a favorable outcome and probably it would not affect the completion of the Xayaburi dam, although it seriously threatens the funding. Furthermore, Chinese plans for the northern course and those still standing in the south do not leave much hope for a happy conclusion.

The fate of the Mekong River and its inhabitants, both inside and outside its waters, is yet to be written.


Written by: Marco Principia

Marco Principia

Born in Rome, his beloved city. Graduated with honors in Political Science and International Relations at Università degli Studi "Roma Tre". Currently employed at CIES - ONLUS as Fundraising Manager. Huge fan of A.S. Roma.
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