The Mekong River, formerly known as the Mae Nam Khong, is one of the most important rivers in the world running across six major South-East Asian nations. It originates in the Tibetan Plateau, moves southeast into Yunnan Province in China, runs its course through multiple countries; including Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam; before finally emptying into the South China Sea. Mekong is the seventh longest river in Asia and twelfth longest in the world. The Mekong River Basin is one of the most species-rich habitats of the world and it is home to numerous species of plants, mammals, birds and fishes. The Mekong plays a vital role in the region it runs through supporting its population through its water and fertile plains, among other things. Moreover, it is a vital factor in the current economy of South-East Asia. However, Mekong, like many rivers over the world, faces numerous challenges including pollution and excessive damming. Know about the geography, history, significance, ecology and pollution of the Mekong River through these 10 interesting facts.

 


#1 Mekong is the seventh longest river in Asia

The River Mekong is 4,350 km (2,703 miles) long, making it the seventh longest river in Asia and the twelfth longest river in the world. In terms of discharge, the Mekong is the eighteenth largest river in the world with an average discharge of around 16,000 cubic m/s (565034.67 cubic ft/s).This is more than five times the annual discharge of the much longer River Nile and more than two time that of River Indus in Asia. The Mekong is a trans-boundary river which originates in the Tibetan Plateau in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve. It runs its course through the Tibetan Autonomous Region and then south-east into Yunnan Province in China; flowing via multiple international countries including Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. During its journey, Mekong meets the Ruak River where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar form a tri-junction, popularly known as the Golden Triangle. Finally, it merges into the South China Sea via a complex delta system in Vietnam.

Mekong River Map
Map of the Mekong River

#2 It has different names in the different nations it flows through

The Mekong may be divided into two parts: the Upper Mekong, which originates in Tibet and flows through China and Myanmar; and the Lower Mekong, which flows through the other four nations and empties into the South China Sea. As the Mekong straddles so many international borders, it’s unsurprisingly known by many different names. In Thai and Laos, it is referred to as “Mae Nam Khong” or “Mae Kong”, both meaning “mother water“. In China, the Upper Mekong is referred to as Lancang Jiang, meaning “turbulent river”. In Khmer, the official language of Cambodia, the river is referred to as “Thum”, which in English stands for “Great River”. In Vietnam, the river is often referred to as “Cuu Long”, meaning “Nine Dragons”. The name is in reference to the multiple dis-tributaries that emerge out of the Mekong Delta. Each name reflects particular characteristics of the Mekong, as well as being testament to the great diversity of the cultural regions and ethnic groups the river flows through.

The Mekong
The Mekong from Mount Phou Si, Laos

#3 It is vital to the economy of South-East Asia

According to a study, the geological age of Mekong River is 17 million years. It has thus played a major role in the history, culture and economy of South-East Asia. Traces of human activity along the river dates back to 210 BCE with evidences of early Iron Age culture. Numerous dominant ethnic groups of the nations it passes through relies on the water of the Mekong. It is key to the economy of the South-East Asia providing water resources for agriculture, industry, etc. Nations; including Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam; which falls under the Lower Mekong basin are called the ‘Rice Bowl’ of Asia. In 2014, their combined rice production was more than 100 million tonnes of rice, around 15% of the world’s total. Water from Mekong river basin also helps irrigate approximately 4 million hectares of land. Since the Mekong Basin has one of the world’s largest and most productive inland fisheries, large amount of commercial fishing activity is carried out in the river accounting for total economic value between US$3.9 and US$7 billion a year. Moreover, for thousand of years, Mekong has been used for navigation by the people of the many towns on its banks. Also, it is eventually becoming an important link in international trade routes.

Mekong Delta Rice
Rice production in the Mekong Delta

#4 Its basin is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world

The basin of the Mekong river has a total area of 795,000 sq km, making it the twenty first largest river basin in the world. It is distributed as such: China (21%), Myanmar (3%), Lao People’s Democratic Republic (25%), Thailand (23%), Cambodia (20%) and Vietnam (8%). The Mekong Basin may be divided into two parts: the Upper Mekong Basin in China; and the Lower Mekong Basin, downstream from Yunnan province in China to the South China Sea. The population of the basin is over 70 million and the Lower Basin population was estimated to be 60 million in 2007. Moreover, there are over 100 different ethnic groups living within the basin’s boundaries. This makes it one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. Though urbanization is slowly occurring in the region, around 85% of the population of the basin still live in rural areas. Mekong is the chief source of income for most of these people. This can be gauged from the fact that around 60% of the economically active population of the region depend on water related occupations.

Mekong River Basin Map
Map of the Mekong River Basin

#5 Mekong Basin is enormously rich in biodiversity

The Mekong River Basin is regarded as one of the most significant ecological areas in the world due to its rich biodiversity. It is home to 20,000 species of plants; 430 species of mammals; 1,200 species of birds; 800 species of reptiles and amphibians; and 850 freshwater species of fish. Interestingly, new species are also being discovered from the Mekong river. In 2009, 145 species previously unknown to science were identified from the region, including 29 fish species, two bird species, 10 reptiles, five mammals, 96 plants and 6 amphibians. The Lower Mekong basin is also home to over 60 million people and humans have inhabited the region for more than centuries. The basin continues to provide food, fresh water and shelter to its human inhabitants. However, pollution caused by human activity in the region have became a threat to the flora and fauna. Due to this, many of the endemic species residing in the basin are on the verge of extinction. Endangered animals in the Mekong Basin include Siamese Crocodile, Irrawaddy Dolphins and Giant Freshwater Stingray.

Siamese Crocodile
Siamese Crocodile – One of the endangered animals in the Mekong Basin

#6 It is the fastest growing large river basin in terms of hydro-power construction

The Mekong River is a powerful river with significant variation in terms of its flow and volume during different times of the year. The Mekong discharges 475 cubic km (114 cu mi) of water annually and thus, it has tremendous capability to generate hydro-power. The estimated hydro-power potential of the lower Mekong Basin is 30,000 MW, while that of the upper Mekong Basin is 28,930 MW. The Mekong is already heavily dammed with China having built more than 10 dams on the river since 2015. Moreover, China has moved forward with the construction of five more mega-dams in Upper Mekong without consulting its downstream neighbors. The dams built in lower Mekong generate 3,235 MW while projects under construction will provide an additional 3,209 MW. The Mekong is the fastest growing large river basin in the world in terms of hydro-power construction. However, damming of the river has raised concerns as water in the river is decreasing. Coupled with factors like climate change, incessant damming of the river is said to be the reason behind the worst recorded drought in the region in over 100 years in July, 2019.

Xayaburi Dam
Xayaburi Dam on the Lower Mekong River

#7 It has a history of flooding annually

Although Mekong has been a major source of livelihood for the South-east Asian nations for centuries, it has a history of flooding annually. Due to this, it has often caused considerable loss of life; damage to agriculture, property and infrastructure; and disruption of social and economic activities throughout the basin. The primary flood region is the lower Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. The 2011 Mekong Flood was one of the most severe flood events in the past decade that brought extensive devastation. It had an estimated 265 fatalities with at least 449,000 houses damaged and an estimated economic loss of USD $600 million. The reasons for the floods is usually sustained heavy rains in the lower Mekong River basin between August and November, which overfill the river beyond its capacity. However, with the assistance of technology, Mekong River Commission (MRC) is upgrading its flood resistance ability in the recent years through various forms of emergency planning, advanced flood observation systems and improved preparedness.



#8 The 1995 Mekong Agreement governs water sharing of the river

There is a legal treaty between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam regarding the sharing of the water of River Mekong. However, China and Myanmar, whose territories comprise the Upper Mekong Basin, have not signed the 1995 Agreement. The Agreement on the Cooperation for Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin was signed at Chiang Rai, Thailand on April 5, 1995 by the heads of respective states. In 1996, China and Myanmar chose to become official dialogue partners where they may dispatch representatives to Council meetings and participate in discussions. According to the 1995 Mekong Agreement, there would be mutual control over the water of the Mekong River in reference to data sharing, water use monitoring, maintenance of flows, water quality, sustainable development and management. Brokered by the Mekong River Commission (MRC), the 1995 Agreement is reviewed by the environment and water ministers of the member states every year.

Mekong River Commission logo
Logo of the Mekong River Commission (MRC)

#9 Its water in some regions has turned black due to pollution

River Mekong is experiencing major pollution and environmental problems like many other rivers in the world. The level of pollution is rising due to several reasons including human as well as industrial waste. Pesticides and chemical fertilizers used in farming as well as domestic untreated waste which are directly discharged into open waters of the river contribute significantly to the pollution of the river. Apart from affecting human life, pollution also affects aquatic life in the river killing fish and other marine species. The river has become so polluted that water in the Mekong has turned black and is spreading foul smell. In May 2019, residents in the Mekong Delta reported that the water has been pitch black for 10 days and is only getting worse. Due to such toxic conditions, the extremely polluted water of the river is threatening public health and socio-economic development. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) has been taking initiatives to reduce the level of pollution in river. However, these measures have largely failed to ensure that Mekong is kept clean and pollution free.

Mekong River Pollution
Water pollution in Mekong River

#10 The Mekong Delta may be submerged by 2030

Where the Mekong River discharges into the South China Sea, it forms the world’s third largest delta plain which has an area of over 40,500 square km (15,600 sq mi). The Mekong Delta lies in southwestern Vietnam where the river empties into the sea through a network of distributaries. It is a very productive region in agriculture and aquaculture; and has been dubbed as a “biological treasure trove”. It also has an extremely diverse ecological landscape, consisting of a number of wildlife habitats and vegetation. Between 1997 and 2007, more than 1000 animal species were recorded in the region. However, it is not strongly industrialized, accounting for a smaller percentage of foreign direct investment. Although, the region is densely populated, the overall population of the Mekong Delta has been growing relatively slowly in recent years, mainly due to out-migration. Due to human alterations of the river system, the delta has been continuously bearing the brunt. According to studies, being a low-lying coastal region, Mekong Delta will be submerged by 2030 due to rise in sea level owing to climate change.

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