Covering more than 4,900 kilometres, meandering through six countries and the lifeblood for over 60 million people, the Mekong River is one of the world’s biggest and most significant waterways.
With its source in the Tibetan Plateau, the Mekong slices through China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia before finally meeting the South China Sea in Vietnam.
The Mekong is home to 60 million people and a huge array of wildlife and plant species. Its cultural and ecological diversity is evident throughout its course making it a vital lifeline for all that depend on it. A journey on the Mekong would leave any traveller in awe at the variety and beauty that the river and its many landscapes have to offer.
The Mekong as a Resource
Approximately 2.6 million tonnes of fish are taken from the Mekong per year in addition to the huge amount of water which is taken for farming and hydroelectric projects. The Mekong Basin ( Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) accounts for 25 percent of the world’s freshwater fish catch, making it the largest inland fishery anywhere in the world.
In Cambodia alone, more than 6 million people are officially employed as fishermen and, astonishingly, approximately 70 percent of the country’s protein comes from the Mekong fed Tonle Sap lake. Moreover, 15 percent of Cambodia’s GDP comes from fishing and is a vital part of the economy with Cambodia having a higher consumption of fish than anywhere else in the world per capita.
Chakrey Un from WWF Cambodia, who help people whose lives depend on the Mekong river, recently said: “People along the Mekong River from Kratie to Stung Treng are basically making their living by fishing, farming, animal husbandry, vegetable cultivation along the river bank, multi-crop farming and boat driving.”
As the tourism industry in Cambodia evolves, the Mekong is providing income for new ecotourism initiatives. One of the most popular places to see the rare Irrawaddy dolphin is Koh Phdao, the largest island in the Mekong river.
The river flows across an incredible variety of landscapes from dry savannahs to lush rainforest which is home to the countless animal and plant species that call it home.
In the Cambodian section of the Mekong alone there are many fascinating and highly endangered species. These include the Irrawaddy dolphin, Siamese crocodiles, giant soft-shelled turtles, giant Mekong catfish and literally thousands of bird and plant species.
The key ingredient, according to Chakrey Un, is “the abundance of intact habitats, including diverse and rich seasonally flooded riverine vegetation, deep pools, sandbars, rocky rapids, numerous islands that get flooded during the wet season and riverbank forests”.
Studies undertaken since 1997 show that over 1,500 species of fauna and flora have been discovered in the Mekong’s waterways.
The Greater Mekong is also home to the largest combined tiger habitat in the world. Unfortunately, there has been a 70 percent decrease in tiger numbers in the Greater Mekong in the last ten years but there are new schemes to introduce wild tigers into protected areas of Cambodia’s Mondulkiri province once again.
The Mekong has the second highest biodiversity of any river in the world after the Amazon with over 1,100 species of freshwater fish including some unique to the Mekong such as the giant freshwater stingray.