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REQUIEM for a river
The Mekong is the world’s second richest river in terms of biodiversity and one of the few major rivers spared by development, but in recent years large-scale projects along its length have multiplied. The construction of Xayaburi and Don Sahong mega-dams in Laos combined with the massive sand mining of the riverbed could cause the Mekong Delta in Vietnam to vanish under water.
The riparian countries, led by China, have started the construction of 30 dams (7 of which have already been completed) to meet the ever-increasing energy needs without concern about the fish supplies for the 60 million people living in the Mekong basin, each of whom consume 60 kg (133 pounds)** of fish each year which is 18 times more than the average consumption per person in the US. These dams will trap half of the silt which is essential for agriculture and the fish population. Laos and Cambodia have also decided to participate in the race by building mega dams that will have a far greater impact on fish migration as well as on fish nurseries around Tonle Sap lake in Cambodia. Vietnam on the other hand, the world's largest rice exporter, will see its production fall sharply in the delta - a region that produces 90% of the country’s rice export and accounts for 20% of GDP.
According to experts, the Mekong Delta will also be a region highly affected by global warming. The average temperature has already risen by 0.5°C between 1979 and 2009 and is expected to rise by 1.1 to 3.6°C by 2100. The yield of rice fields is decreasing by 10% for each degree and the sea is rising (2 to 3.3ft by 2100). These figures are extremely alarming especially when combined with the massive sand mining for the real estate development in Bangkok, Singapore or Ho Chi Minh - and mega dams like Xayaburi will block almost all sediment replenishment. While Thailand buys most of the electricity produced by the dams, 70% of the population of Laos has no access. According to Marc Goichot, a hydrologist and Mekong expert at WWF, “the Mekong Delta has been sinking for 20 years and everything is expected to accelerate in 2019 with the completion of Xayaburi dam.”
These three factors: the dams, sand mining and sea level rise, will combine to have a devastating effect on the eco-system, not only of the delta but of the river as a whole.
** According to Mekong River Commission report, 2007.