How the Mekong River Is Starved by Dams

Vietnamese Tran Van Cung stands on his land near the Mekong River and watches as his rice plantation washes away in front of him. The edge of the property is descending into the river delta. The river used to transport 143 million metric tons of material through the Mekong River Delta annually, but that was only fifteen years ago. Tens of thousands of farms were able to remain productive because of the process, which transported vital nutrients along the river’s margin. However, the river has widened due to hydroelectric dams constructed in China. Now, a large portion of that sediment is blocked. The aforementioned data is derived from an analysis of satellite photos conducted by Reuters and the German remote sensing company EOMAP.


The analysis confirms previous predictions made by the Mekong River Commission, according to which just roughly one-third of those river soils would make it to Vietnam’s floodplains by 2020. Less than five million metric tons of silt will reach the delta year by 2040, according to the commission’s projection. Tens of millions of people rely on the Mekong River for their livelihood in fishing and farming. The river is around five thousand kilometers long. Before arriving in Vietnam, it passes through China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia. For almost 40 years, Cung, a Vietnamese farmer, has been cultivating rice on his family’s 10-hectare land.


Scientists and others have been warning for a long time that the rice-growing business would suffer grave consequences from upstream dam developments. The rice market in the region is valued at $10.5 billion. In Asia, rice is a staple diet for up to 200 million people. These concerns have caused Cambodia to temporarily shelve its plans to construct two dams on the river. But construction of dams is still ongoing in China and Laos. In Laos, seven additional dams are planned. The Mekong Dam Monitor claims that Chinese businesses are co-financing at least four of them. Two major Mekong dams in China and two in Laos were the subjects of an investigation by Reuters and EOMAP using data from hundreds of satellite photographs on silt levels.


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