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Rice paddy fields near Tonle Sap Lake, Cambodia

The Mekong in maps

This week we will examine the Mekong, the most important river system in Southeast Asia. This article paints a picture of the Mekong River Basin by using a series of maps that illustrate the socio-economic and natural resource dynamics of the basin region. In subsequent steps, we will discuss Mekong governance and actors.

The Mekong’s estimated 4800 km journey begins high in the Himalayas in Tibet and continues through China’s Yunnan province into parts of Myanmar, Lao PDR, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam. From its source to its delta, the Mekong river provides energy, water, soil nutrients, food and many other necessities for humans. It is also a driving feature of the ecological landscapes through which it flows. The Lower Mekong Basin is a biodiversity hotspot, and this diversity is also reflected in the region’s crops. For example, Lao PDR has over 13,000 varieties of cultivated rice.

The Mekong region is home to more than 300 million people from more than 100 ethnic groups, who depend on natural resources for food and economic growth. As the population increases, human activities are putting a strain on the river and its resources.

Below we have gathered maps produced by the Mekong River Commission (MRC) that provide an overview of several aspects of the region. Data visualizations can tell a variety of stories, as well as provide the context needed to understand complex issues. While looking at the maps below, think of some correlations and connections between different maps.

This first map provides a geographical overview of the Mekong region. The Lower Mekong area is located within the red outline.

Map of the overview of the Mekong - MRC Map 1: Overview of the Mekong region (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Map 2 shows the population densities (people per square km) throughout the Lower Mekong region. Dark shades of brown represent the least densely populated areas, while shades of green represent the most densely populated areas. You can see many of the most densely populated areas are in the Mekong Delta in southern Cambodia and southern Vietnam.

Map of Lower Mekong region population densities - MRC Map 2: Lower Mekong population density (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Map 3 shows average annual population growth rates throughout the Lower Mekong region. Compare it with Map 2 on population density and consider how the current growth rates may affect future population densities. The darker shades of green represent the highest growth rates. Population growth rates are highest in much of Lao PDR and Cambodia, which are two of the least developed countries (LDCs). High population growth rates are common in such countries.

Map of Lower Mekong region average annual population growth rates - MRC Map 3: Lower Mekong average annual population growth rates (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Map 4 gives us overview of the human impact on water quality at different points along the Lower Mekong river, ranging from no impact (green dots) to severe impact (red dots). Note the concentration of red in the delta. Food system activities within the basin, particularly agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture, account for a proportion of the impact on water quality shown here.

Human impact on water quality - MRC Map 4: Human impact on water quality in the Lower Mekong (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Map 5 shows the different land cover types present in the Lower Mekong, as of 2010. While forest cover (shades of green) is still significant, at around 40%, you can see large areas of rice paddy fields (yellow) in Thailand, Cambodia and southern Vietnam, totaling over 20% coverage. Also notice the concentration of aquaculture activity (purple) at the southern tip of the delta.

Land cover in 2010 - MRC Map 5: Lower Mekong land cover as of 2010 (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Map 6 presents one example of the relationship between food system activities and natural resources: irrigation. The map shows existing (green) and planned (red) irrigation projects in the Lower Mekong, and you can see the correlation between existing irrigation projects and the paddy field areas in Map 5. The map also highlights the importance of water resources from the Mekong for food production across Thailand and Cambodia, as well as the scale of planned (as of 2010-11) irrigation projects in Lao PDR.

Existing and planned irrigation projects - MRC Map 6: Existing and planned irrigation projects in the Lower Mekong (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Finally, Map 7 shows both existing and planned hydropower projects in the region. As we can see, there are many dams planned along the Mekong and its tributaries, many of which are to be located in Lao PDR.

Existing and planned hydropower projects - MRC Map 7: Existing and planned hydropower projects in the Lower Mekong (Mekong River Commission, 2011).

Engage

This series of seven maps illustrates some of the key characteristics, issues and trends in the Mekong River Basin. In the comment box below, tell us your thoughts or questions on these maps, and the Mekong in general. Do you think the planned increases in irrigation and hydropower projects are necessary for food security, or are they potentially unsustainable? Or perhaps both?

Sources

Daniel, R., Lebel, L., Manorom, K. eds. (2013). Governing the Mekong: Exchanging in the Politics of Knowledge. Strategic Information and Research Development Centre, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.

Mekong River Commission (2011). Planning Atlas of the Lower Mekong River Basin. Part of the Basin Development Plan Programme. Mekong River Commission (MRC). Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

USAID (2013). USAID Mekong ARCC Climate Change Impact and Adaptation Study for the Lower Mekong Basin: Main Report. Prepared for the United States Agency for International Development by the International Centre for Environmental Management, Bangkok.

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This article is from the free online course:

Food and Our Future: Sustainable Food Systems in Southeast Asia

Stockholm Environment Institute