MEKONG RIVER The visit to Lao was also our introduction to the mighty and very important Mekong River. Of course we were familiar with its name since how vital it is to other countries as well, such as Lao, Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar (old Burma), and China. The Mekong forms the international we had lived through the Viet Nam war era, but we did not realize borders between China and Myanmar, between Myanmar and Laos, between Myanmar and Thailand, between Thailand and Laos, between Laos and Cambodia and between both these countries and Vietnam. The unstable course of the river has created conflicts about the exact placement of borders and about claims to islands in the river. Depending on where geographers begin their measurements of this river (and there is controversy about the actual origin though all agree it is somewhere in China), they call it the longest river in Southeast Asia, the 7 th longest in Asia, and 11 th longest in the world — somewhere between 2700 and 3000 miles long. Only the Amazon has more species of fish and the Mekong wins the prize for the most varieties of giant fish! Ninety million people rely heavily on the Mekong for food, water, irrigation, and employment. This dependence is particularly strong in Lao and Cambodia, two of the world’s poorest countries. There is a commission composed of all the countries concerned with the Mekong which tries to insure fairness in sharing the river’s bounty; however, China and Myanmar are not signatories and China is the country which has done most to disturb the river through widespread dam construction in its territory. This has resulted in the extinction of several large fish species and an ominous decline in the numbers of many other species. Cambodia and Lao in particular need the periodic flooding by the Mekong to replenish the fertility of their land and the Chinese dams have already affected the yearly flow to those countries. To date, the Chinese have been completely oblivious of the distress caused to other peoples who live along the Mekong. The Myanmar government has built some dams as well but these are not as numerous and have a less devastating consequence so far; however, the military junta there is just as unconcerned with downstreameffects.
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