1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Can a green transition save the Mekong River?

Enno Hinz
May 30, 2024

Southeast Asia's longest river provides a lifeline for millions, but a race for resources and energy has put the Mekong's future in jeopardy. Sustainable projects are now offering new hope.

A boy is seen walking with a cow along the highway that runs from Vientiane, Laos, to Sihanoukville, Cambodia in Si Phan Don, Laos
The Mekong river sustains agriculture, fishing, transport and commerce — and supports life in small villages and towns along its banksImage: Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

The Mekong River, which traverses over 4,000 kilometers (2,500 miles) of Asian countryside, is a crucial source of fishing, farming and transportation for around 65 million people.

The Mekong originates in the Tibetan Plateau in China and flows to the South China Sea through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam.

However, infrastructure projects designed to meet the energy demands of Southeast Asia's rapidly growing societies are on the rise in the Mekong. The intervention is being felt downstream and is putting increasing pressure on the river's ecosystems and livelihoods.

Cambodia to begin work on controversial canal

Cambodia announced on Thursday that it will start work on the Funan Techo canal in August. The $1.7 billion (€1.6 billion) project will link the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, to the sea — sparking concerns in Vietnam over its impact on the rice-producing Mekong Delta, home to 17.4 million people.

Environmentalists are also concerned that the 180-kilometer canal will potentially reduce water flow to the Mekong, among the world's most biodiverse rivers.

The climate crisis is compounding the issue, with delayed rainy seasons and heatwaves further drying out fertile lands.

Global food supply under pressure

The Mekong's annual flood-drought cycle supports crucial fish migrations and freshwater biodiversity. Accounting for over 15% of the global inland fish catch, the river hosts the world's largest inland fishery.

In certain regions, however, fish stocks have declined by more than 87% in the last two decades. 

"It is a multifaceted problem," according to Courtney Weatherby, deputy director of the Southeast Asia program at the Stimson Center, a think tank dedicated to finding pragmatic solutions to transboundary issues.

"But many of these broader challenges can be linked with the massive dam-building spree that has been taking place across the Mekong in recent decades."

Harnessing the power of flowing water to generate electricity is one of the oldest form of renewable energy. In Southeast Asia in particular, hydropower dams have become a reliable and clean source of energy — and income.

"You face this sort of dilemma where hydropower is considered to be clean and needed. But at the same time, it does have non-carbon environmental impacts, which can be profound," Weatherby told DW.

Hydropower projects affect the river's natural rhythm, according to Stimson. They change water levels, block fish migration passages and affect agriculture that depends on the natural ability of the river system to produce sediments, nutrients and bring water through the system.

Mekong River threatened by dams, climate change

Balancing the Mekong's resources with energy demands

With less disruptive alternatives existing — such as solar and wind power — some experts say that hydropower infrastructure can also be part of the solution.

The building of large-scale wind parks and installing floating solar panels on the Mekong dam reservoirs is already underway in Laos and Thailand.

These projects can operate jointly with hydropower, providing the potential for future investments to slowly shift from dams to solar and wind power.

According to Weatherby, the idea of these alternative approaches to energy design is see them "not as one-off projects, but more a broader energy system contribution" for a cleaner future.

Nature-based solutions

Given the diverse ecosystems present in the region, including wetlands, floodplains, and forests, the Mekong River Commission (MRC) sees great potential in implementing nature-based solutions.

Instead of further taming the Mekong with concrete and channelized barriers, the river should reclaim its own course through the conservation of its natural resources.

For instance, mangroves and marshes can act as sponges, absorbing water and reducing the impact of waves on the shorelines.

"Restoring and protecting these natural habitats can help mitigate floods, improve water quality, and enhance biodiversity," the Secretariat of the MRC told DW. 

Vietnam's new Resolution 120, dedicated to a climate-resilient transition, gives hope. It shows that there is increasing interest at the policy level in identifying nature-based solutions as feasible alternatives to more modern infrastructure.

Listening to the locals

While people living along the river are the most impacted by Mekong development projects, the MRC also counts them among the most knowledgeable and the most crucial in pushing forward alternative solutions and approaches in the region.

A powerful example of how community-based organizations can speak for the Mekong and push policies to respond to local people is the Chiang Khong Conservation Group (CKCG) in northern Thailand.

On the Mekong through Laos

In 2020, after almost 20 years of activism, the group succeeded in stopping Chinese engineers from blasting river rapids along the Thai-Laos border to allow large Chinese ships to navigate further downstream.

It was the first time the Thai government has halted a cross-border project due to its potential environmental harm.

"We need to adopt a traditional knowledge mindset. This will result in conserving energy, a system's perspective, and eco-centric policy rather than human-centric and extractive actions," CKCG's Noparat Lamun told DW.

Together with the affiliated Mekong School, Lamun and his team draw from local knowledge and exchange with researchers. Their ever-growing community is training locals and young environmentalists on how best to protect their water resources and spark citizen engagement across the Mekong and beyond.

"The river is not healthy, but also not dead," Weatherby said.

"There is so much energy not only in the private sector space but also among youth in these countries really pushing for a shift, and that is exciting and promising."

Edited by: Keith Walker

Before you leave: Every Friday, the DW Asia newsletter delivers compelling articles and videos from around the continent right to your inbox. Subscribe below.