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State of Mekong Basin good but future developments bring both risks and opportunities says MRC report

Hau Hin, Thailand

2 April 2010

A report released by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) reveals good news for the general health of the Mekong Basin, but warns that this and the eco-systems of the river system could be threatened by proposed infrastructure and expanding populations.

“The water quality of almost all the mainstream monitoring stations is rated as ‘excellent’ for the protection of aquatic life,” says the MRC’s State of the Basin Report 2010, released today, with the exception of areas of high population density and in the Delta, where intensive agriculture and aquaculture need careful management to avoid pollution. “There are no wide spread water quality threats to the river’s aquatic biodiversity,” it says.

However, the report which gives a snapshot of the environmental health of the basin and is released by the MRC every five to seven years, also warns against complacency and points out that the current healthy status may decline in the future, claiming that accelerating economic development, population growth and changed consumption patterns of the basin’s population are placing the health of wetland ecosystems and their ability to sustain the livelihoods of people in the basin at risk.

“There is a strong link between water quality and the impact of human activity on eco-systems,” says Hanne Bach, Chief Technical Advisor for the Environment Programme of the MRC.

“Over the past five years, significant changes have taken place in water related resources and this is likely to continue, which may put livelihoods under threat. The data suggests that the impacts of changes in resources are beginning to be felt. Caution is needed as future development of the basin may have possible impacts on aquatic health,” said Ms. Bach.

The hydropower potential of the Lower Mekong basin is 30,000 MW of which about 10 percent has actually been developed says the MRC. Hydropower can provide major benefits as a source of renewable energy, plus the export of power to neighbouring countries can earn revenue to finance socio-economic development plans it says. Yet, there is a a broad range of possible social and economic impacts to be considered.

According to the report, more than 60 million people live in the basin and most of these rely on it for their livelihoods. Studies of the livelihoods of rural people in wetlands of the region clearly show the close relationship between the Mekong River, the rich biodiversity of floodplain habitats, and the way of life of rural communities and their dependence on fish and other aquatic organisms that these habitats support.

“For example, in southern Lao PDR, aquatic animals (fish, frogs, snails and insects) and plants have been important ingredients in diets of local people for generations, providing a food source that is high in protein and rich in fat. As a result, rural livelihoods depend on the broad diversity of aquatic plants and animals and are closely entwined with the seasonal rhythm of the river,” says the report.

The renowned biodiversity of the basin is still not fully described and new species are discovered every year. The report notes that particular care is needed to protect the habitats of these species and better understand the complete interaction between the river’s flow regime and aquatic life.
“Major interferences with natural hydrological regimes, through water management and utilisation, may have huge impacts on the integrity of the ecosystem,” it says.

The estimated total production of the Mekong fishery is about 3.9 million tonnes per year. People in the basin eat 30-40 kg of fish per year. Currently, there are no signs of the catch being threatened but some studies have shown indications of a reduction in the number of larger carnivorous fish caught and a dominance of smaller species.

Other observations made in the report include:

  • Agriculture is the single most important economic activity in the Basin. Rice production in the Mekong Delta has increased despite reduction in cropping area.
  • Trade and tourism are also increasing steadily with a doubling of the volume of cargo moved on the river between China and Thailand since 2004.
  • Although major floods have caused devastation, particularly in 2008 in Lao PDR and northern Thailand, and 2009 in the central highlands, the normal annual flood pulse has brought many benefits in terms of supplying agricultural productivity and supporting the diverse ecosystems of the Mekong.

The MRC works to understand the long-term economic, social and environmental implications of proposed developments and other activities in the basin. Last year, for example, it launched a strategic environmental assessment of the proposed hydropower developments in Lao PDR and Cambodia, which will be used to improve the MRC’s ability to guide Member Countries when decisions on individual projects are made.

The MRC also administers the formal consultation process that developers must undergo in order to build dams on the river. Projects slated for development in the lower Mekong Basin come to the Commission for consultation, with a view to assisting Member Countries to reach consensus.


Notes to editors:
The State of the Basin Report 2010, released today is the second edition of this important document. The report paints a picture of how fisheries; forestry; agriculture; hydropower; water quality; wetlands; navigation and trade; climate change and flood management interact together; influence; and are influenced by poverty and social development in the Mekong Basin.

The full report is available on request or for download at:

The MRC’s water quality and biomonitoring programmes provide governments and national agencies in the lower Mekong Basin countries with early warning of changes in the water quality and ecology of the river.

Many of the larger cities in the basin, including Vientiane and Phnom Penh, discharge their urban waste water to large natural wetlands which provide a significant level of treatment before it flows to the river. If these wetlands were removed or drained there is a high risk that water quality would decrease.

Bio-monitoring provides another measure of the ecological condition of the river by studying the organisms that live there. Over five years at 60 sites in a range of environments, bio-monitoring also suggests that the principal rivers of the LMB have not suffered severe harm from the development of water resources or waste disposal but some rivers are showing signs of stress.
Other areas where water quality are a concern include some tributaries, such as the Tonle Sap River and Great Lake, where the water is classed as being of ‘moderate’ quality, which according to the MRC, means that some species may be threatened. In the delta, continued agricultural development and fertiliser use as well as urbanisation are leading to increasing levels of both phosphorus and nitrogen levels, indicating a deterioration of water quality.

The Mekong is one of the most active regions in the world for hydropower with eight existing or planned Mekong mainstream dams in Yunan Province in China (where the Mekong is called the Lancang River) and 11 proposed by Cambodia, Lao PDR and Thailand – all in various stages of investigation or feasibility study.

As set out in the 1995 Mekong Agreement, MRC Member Countries are committed to undergoing a formal consultation process prior to any decision on building dams on the river. The process must balance the interests of people’s livelihoods, as well as the energy, fisheries, tourism, and navigation industries. Projects being studied for development in the lower Mekong Basin come to the Commission for consultation, with a view to assisting member countries to reach consensus on the critical and sensitive issues of their shared water resources and the balanced development of the river.

Past studies undertaken by the MRC have shown that dams can have both a positive and negative impact, for example, MRC analysis shows that large storage dams in the upper Mekong basin can increase dry season flows and reduce flood levels, which can benefit water users. But at the same time the changed flow patterns can reduce fisheries yield. The largest impacts of the proposed mainstream dams in the lower Mekong Basin apart from local resettlement issues would likely be significant changes in fish passage and migration, aquatic habitats, sediment flow leading to erosion and loss of nutrients.

The MRC is the intergovernmental body responsible for cooperation on the sustainable management of the Mekong Basin whose members include Cambodia, Lao PDR, Thailand and Viet Nam. In dealing with this challenge, it looks across all sectors including sustaining fisheries, identifying opportunities for agriculture, maintaining the freedom of navigation, flood management and preserving important ecosystems. Superimposed on these are the future effects of more extreme floods, prolonged drought and sea level rise associated with climate change. In providing its advice, the MRC aims to facilitate a broad range of dialogue among governments, the private sector and civil society on these challenges.

For more information, contact:
Damian Kean, Communication Advisor,
Tel: +856 20 752 7500 (Lao PDR)
       + 66 861 030 710 (Thailand)




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