The Mekong delta Vietnam is one of the world’s great rivers. It is the world’s 10th-longest river and the 7th-longest in Asia. Its estimated length is 4,909 km, and it drains an area of 795,000 km2 , discharging 475 km3 of water annually.
From the Tibetan Plateau this river runs through China’s Yunnan province, Burma, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam established the Mekong River Commission in 1995 to assist in the management and coordinated use of the Mekong’s resources. In 1996 China and Burma became “dialogue partners” of the MRC and the six countries now work together within a cooperation framework.The extreme seasonal variations in flow and the presence of rapids and waterfalls in this river have made navigation extremely difficult.
In English the river is called “the Mekong River”, derived from “Mae Nam Khong”, a term of both Thai and Lao origin. In the Lao-Thai toponymy, all great rivers are considered “mother rivers” signalled by the prefix “mae”, meaning “mother”, and “nam” for water. In the Mekong’s case, Mae Nam Khong means Khong, Mother of Water.”Khong” is derived from the Sanskrit “ganga”, meaning the Ganges. Many Northern Thai and Laos locals refer to it as the “River Khong”. Such is the case with the Mae Nam Ping in Chiang Mai which is known as the “Ping River”. The Tonle Sap in Cambodia is a similar example – where Tonle translates as “Great lake or river”, making the Tonle Sap River an unnecessary repetition of what is in fact the “Sap River”.
The Mekong rises in the “Three Rivers Area” on the Tibetan Plateau in the Sanjiangyuan National Nature Reserve as the Lancang, together with the Yangtze and Salween Rivers.It flows southwest through Yunnan Province through the Three Parallel Rivers of Yunnan Protected Areas in the Hengduan Mountains. After leaving China, it flows southeast and forms the border of Burma and Laos for about 100 kilometres then turns southwest to form briefly the border of Laos with Thailand. The Mekong then flows east and south into Laos for some 400 kilometres and defines the Laos-Thailand border again for some 850 kilometres as it flows east, turning south through central Southeast Asia, passing through the capital of Laos, Vientiane. The Mun River’s confluence with the Mekong occurs right before it crosses into Cambodia, where it receives the Sap River, flowing by Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The Mekong slows as it enters Vietnam, where it divides into nine channels of the Mekong Delta, emptying into the South China Sea.
The two most current issues facing the river are the building of dams and blasting of rapids.A number of dams have already been built on the river’s tributaries, notably the Pak Mun dam in Thailand. This has been criticised on grounds of cost as well as damage to the environment and to the livelihoods of affected villagers, though none have been built on the main part itself.
China is engaged in an extensive program of dam-building on the river itself: it has already completed three, the first called the Manwan dam, another twelve are under consideration.Poverty stricken Cambodia is one nation that is completely dependent on the river for food and the vast majority of its fledgling economy. The annual floods provide much needed water for crops of the otherwise dry dusty land, and to refresh Tonle Sap, yet its major cities are all vulnerable to flooding. The Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve has been created to try to protect areas around the Tonle Sap Lake and river, which is connected to the Mekong.
The Mekong River Commission, a panel of the region’s nations, has accused China of blatantly disregarding the nations downstream in its plans to dam the river in an effort to stop the dams, but to no avail. Since the building of the first Chinese dam, many species have become endangered, including the Mekong Dolphin and dugong, water levels have dropped as ferries get stuck, fish caught are small and the catch is less than half of before the dam, the turnover at Chiang Rai port is less than one fourth of previous years, and crossings from Chiang Rai to isolated Luang Prabang have lengthened from 8 hours to 2 days due to inadequate water levels. Despite all these problems, new dams planned will have significantly worse impact if carried out as planned. All nations downstream and the environment will suffer from added pollution (due to development and relatively lax regulation and enforcement in China compared to Thailand, poisoning the food supply from pesticide runoff and heavy industry, as well as promoting algal blooms from organophosphates from agriculture, as well as water hyacinth infestation), river blockage problems as fish cannot swim upstream to spawn, and potentially devastating very low water flow.
Other environmental concerns arise from increased water flow in some parts as China clears rocks and sandbars, blasts gorges, and slows water as it dams and floods other sections, and relocates indigenous peoples. Cambodia is by far the most exposed, depending on a fine balance of water flow, fearing scenarios of mass famine and devastating floods, the likes of which destroyed the Angkor kingdom 700 years ago. Laos’ biggest cities all hug the Mekong as does Vietnam’s largest city and financial hub, Ho Chi Minh City, which would be vulnerable mostly to low flow and pollution.