First Greater Mekong Environmental Atlas Reveals Problems

MANILA, Philippines, April 19, 2004 (ENS) - Along the Mekong River and its tributaries, live 250 million people, most of them in rural areas. Five entire countries - Cambodia; Laos, Myanmar, formerly Burma; Thailand; Vietnam; and one Chinese province - Yunnan - are encompassed in the region.

Environmental degradation remains one of the most pressing challenges in the countries sharing the Mekong River - a region rich in resources but with a high poverty rate.

The scarcity of environmental information has been is a constraint on sustainable development planning and decisionmaking in the subregion, but that problem was solved today with the release of the "Greater Mekong Subregion Atlas of the Environment," the first book of its kind defining the area, jointly published by the Asian Development Bank and the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP).


Tadao Chino of Japan is president of the Asian Development Bank (Photo courtesy ADB)
At a launch of the atlas in Manila, Asian Development Bank President Tadao Chino called on all stakeholders in the region to work "hand in hand for the preservation of the environment for the benefit of future generations."

The atlas documents cross-border environmental issues such as hydropower developments along the Mekong and its tributaries, canalization and other navigational improvements in the Upper Mekong, conflicting maritime claims to offshore fisheries resources, and illegal cross-border trade in timber, wildlife and rare and endangered species.

For the first time in one volume, maps, remote sensing images, and statistics on one of the most culturally, ethnically, and biologically diverse regions in the world are displayed.

In the Foreword, Chino and UNEP Executive Director Klaus Toepfer observe that, "The atlas clearly demonstrates how the countries of the subregion are bound by shared natural resources, the commonality of the challenges facing these countries, and the need for subregional cooperation in conserving the environment to enable them to pursue sustainable development goals."


Woman of Laos (Photo courtesy Laos Lonline)
They cite the commitment of the leaders of the Greater Mekong countries in their 2002 Summit declaration which said, "We must and will better protect our environment. We will take responsibility and leadership for the sustainable management of our natural and shared resources."

The atlas shows how the region's current population is expected to grow to 290 million by 2015. Economic growth over the next two decades is likely to come from increases in manufacturing and services, rather than agriculture.

The atlas makes it possible to get a detailed overview of the region, its peoples and their demands on the region's resources.

Thailand, the Greater Mekong's economic hub, looks set to double its demand in natural resources in the next 25 years as a result of economic growth and rising consumption levels. Although agriculture employs 50 percent of Thailand's people, it accounts for just nine percent of GDP.


Fish rearing pens in Thailand (Photo by R. Faidutti courtesy FAO)
Agriculture is currently practiced on 21 percent of the subregion's land. As farmers struggle to fill the stomachs of a growing population, the atlas allows predictions that include - wetland conversion to agricultural land, forest encroachment and more salinization, water pollution from nutrients and increased soil toxicity from chemical use.

People are predicted to leave the rural areas in search of jobs in the cities. Provision for 50 percent more people in urban areas will be needed in less than 15 years, the atlas shows.

Water and air pollution in the region are localized but troubling. Basic sewage and drainage systems are not well maintained, and there are serious air, surface and groundwater pollution in major metropolitan areas, particularly disposal of industrial effluents and toxic and hazardous by-products of the growing industrial sector, the atlas shows.

There are now 550 protected areas in the subregion, of which 380 have biodiversity conservation as a major function. Initiatives to protect other significant areas of biodiversity include the designation of the Tonle Sap Biosphere Reserve, where many of Cambodia's 500 species of freshwater fishes are found.


Fishing activities on Tonle Sap river that connects the lake of the same name with the Mekong River. (Photo by P. Gigli courtesy FAO)
The 55 million or so people in the Lower Mekong River Basin - about a third of the subregion's area - consume an average of 56 kilograms (123 pounds) of fish per person per year.

Despite poor regulation, overharvesting, and destructive fishing practices, fisheries yields have been stable or even increasing, but urgent safeguards need to be put in place, UNEP warns.

Forty percent of the subregion is classified as forested land but "current rates of exploitation are unsustainable and deforestation is a challenge across the region," the environmental agency says.

Effective conservation of rich biodiversity regions like the Annamite Range rainforests - situated along the border of Lao PDR and Vietnam and the only place where new species of large mammals have been discovered in the past 50 years - may require the establishment of transboundary protected areas.

The atlas assessed country progress in meeting the Millennium Development Goals, and shows more needs to be done to meet the targets committed to by governments. It shows one in five people still live in poverty and large gaps between the haves and have-nots in each country.

The "Greater Mekong Subregion Atlas of the Environment," can be ordered through