Conserving the Mighty Mekong River

Posted on April, 12 2011

In the Mekong River, you’ll find fish bigger than cars. They’re not the only ones who depend on this vital waterway
In the Mekong River, you’ll find fish bigger than cars. They’re not the only ones who depend on this vital waterway

The Mekong region is a natural wonder. It’s a landscape where tigers still roam, and two new species have been discovered every week for the last decade.

At its heart is the Mekong River. It flows nearly 5,000 km, from the icy heights of the Tibetan plateau in China to the South China Sea. Along the way it passes through Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam.

Water from the Mekong River sustains a rich array of wildlife. Its fisheries provide a livelihood for 60 million people. As a source of water and food, it touches the lives of more than 300 million people from over 100 ethnic groups. 

But now the river is under threat. And what happens next could affect everything that relies on it.

What’s at stake?

The Mekong river basin is the largest inland fishery on the planet, accounting for around a quarter of the world’s freshwater catch, worth more than US$3 billion a year. Four of the six largest freshwater fish on the planet are found here, including the biggest of all, the Mekong giant catfish, which can weigh up to 300kg.

Other threatened species include the Irrawaddy dolphin -  fewer than 100 are found on the river in Laos and Cambodia.

Unlike so many of the world’s great rivers, the lower Mekong remains free of dams. But this could soon change – with serious consequences.

Proposed new dams on the mainstream will prevent many species of migratory fish from reaching their spawning grounds, threatening the fishing industry and a hugely important food source. Changes to water and sediment flows are also a long-term threat to people and biodiversity in the Mekong delta.

The story so far

WWF works along the entire length of the Mekong to face up to threats of dams, overfishing and climate change. We have more than three decades of experience working in the region, so we’ve formed strong partnerships with communities, governments, businesses and other organizations.

Working with local people, we’ve promoted sustainable fishing to help balance current and future human needs with those of the wildlife sharing this mighty river. Our community fisheries projects are helping local people earn a better living by managing their aquatic resources sustainably. We’re also bringing the knowledge and experience of rural communities into national and regional policy and management strategies.

As well as promoting sustainable fishing, we’re increasing the network of freshwater protected areas. In Laos, we’re aiming to increase the number from 72 to 100 by the end of 2011.

Did you know?

The Mekong River’s giant freshwater stingray is half the length of a bus and weighs up to 600kg.

Facts and stats

  • 850 – species of freshwater fish in the Mekong River
  • US$3 billion – annual value of the fish the Mekong produces
  • 11 – hydroelectric dams planned on the mainstream of the lower Mekong River

What’s next?

On 22 September 2010, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) publicly announced that it had received “notification” from the government of Laos to build the Xayaboury dam in northern Laos. An assessment process is now under way, which will take at least six months. If approved, it would be the first dam on the mainstream of the lower Mekong River.

We’re seriously concerned about the impacts of the Xayaboury hydropower dam, particularly when there’s a lack of knowledge to properly assess these impacts.

Any dam proposed on the lower Mekong river mainstream will affect all countries of the region (Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam). It would irreversibly change the ecosystem that over 60 million people rely on for food, and will likely result in the extinction of the iconic Mekong giant catfish and other fish species.

The Xayaboury dam is the first of 11 large-scale hydropower dams are planned for the lower Mekong.  With a growing population and fast-developing economy, the Greater Mekong region needs new sources of energy – and hydropower has the potential to provide a clean, renewable supply.

But damming the lower Mekong – one of the last great free-flowing rivers in the world – isn’t the answer.
We’re calling for a 10-year delay in making a decision on the dams, including the Xayaboury dam, so the consequences on the region can be properly examined.

To meet immediate energy demands, we’re promoting sustainable hydropower projects on selected tributaries of the Mekong River, giving priority to those that already have hydropower dams. These would allow the Mekong countries to meet their energy needs while keeping the Mekong River free-flowing.

What you can do

Find out more about our work in the Greater Mekong – from saving tigers to producing sustainable rattan.

Join the myWWF Action Center
Be part of a global community of activists ready to take simple online actions that can help save wildlife and people. Sign up today!


Aerial view of the Mekong Delta, Southern Vietnam.
© Elizabeth Kemf / WWF
Children with a basket full of Mekong freshwater herring "pa mak pang" or Laotian shad (Tenualosa thibaudeaui), formerly one of the most abundant species, which has almost disappeared, Tonle Sap River, Cambodia.
© Zeb Hogan / WWF
Tribal girl collects water in the evening from the Serepok River in a poor commune in Vietnam's Central Highlands where thousands of poor villagers have access to sanitation.
© Elizabeth Kemf / WWF
The critically endangered Mekong River Irrawaddy dolphin.
© WWF Greater Mekong