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Miracle of the Mekong

WWF's Carter Roberts on why we must protect this extraordinary place

Cambodia_july_2012-3406

“The challenge and the opportunity here are the same—to manage this vibrant ecosystem and its rich natural resources as a complete, interconnected whole.”

Carter Roberts
WWF President and CEO

Earlier this year I joined U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to discuss the conservation of the Greater Mekong basin. We were joined by the foreign ministers of the Lower Mekong countries—Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and, for the first time, Myanmar—along with senior representatives from those countries most heavily invested in the region, including the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the European Union.

Secretary Clinton accurately described the Mekong River as a miracle. It sustains life and livelihoods—directly or indirectly—for hundreds of millions of people. But unprecedented economic and social development threatens the health of the Mekong, as does its particular vulnerability to climate change, making conservation work here especially important.

When you map the value of nature throughout all the countries of the world, the Mekong River countries stand out because they have what everybody else wants: a major river system that drives sustainable hydropower, feeds tens of millions of people and supports a thriving agricultural sector. The challenge and the opportunity here are the same—to manage this vibrant ecosystem and its rich natural resources as a complete, interconnected whole. Because when plans are made piecemeal, country by country, cohesiveness is lost and systems begin to fail.

So there’s a deal to be brokered among the countries represented at the meeting in Phnom Penh: to keep the Mekong basin intact while ensuring that all can derive the benefits the river provides. But any agreement must be supported by the best available science at a national level, and it must be connected to political commitments from the Lower Mekong countries and other key stakeholders.

WWF has worked in the Greater Mekong region for more than two decades. As much as any place on Earth, it embodies the imperative of finding ways to manage the demands of humanity without destroying the planet that supports us all. This is our moment in time, while the Mekong River ecosystem is still intact, to do the right thing to keep this extraordinary place healthy and whole.

This story was originally published in FOCUS, WWF's bi-monthly member newsletter. 

  • WWF’s Carter Roberts holding a freshly caught catfish on a tributary of the Mekong River prior to releasing it back to the wild.

    WWF’s Carter Roberts holding a freshly caught catfish on a tributary of the Mekong River prior to releasing it back to the wild.

  • A flight of cormorants over the central section of the Lower Mekong River—one of the last refuges for many threatened species, including the endemic and critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin, Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, and white-shouldered

    A flight of cormorants over the central section of the Lower Mekong River—one of the last refuges for many threatened species, including the endemic and critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphin, Cantor’s giant softshell turtle, and white-shouldered ibis.

  • Irrawaddy dolphin breaching

    It is estimated that fewer than 100 Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins survive in a 118-mile stretch of the Mekong River between Cambodia and Laos. WWF is working with communities, Buddhist monks and governments to protect the dolphins by reducing threats such as habitat degradation and unsustainable hydropower development.

  • Carter Roberts joins US Secretary Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the 2nd Annual Friends of the Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting.

    Carter Roberts joins US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the 2nd Annual Friends of the Lower Mekong Ministerial Meeting.

  • Tourists cruise along the Mekong in search of the charismatic, but highly threatened Irrawaddy dolphin.

    Tourists cruise along the Mekong in search of the charismatic, but highly threatened Irrawaddy dolphin.

  • An aerial view of the last remaining flooded forests in the Lower Mekong River. These forests are a diverse, wetland mosaic, home to a large number of threatened species including the lesser adjutant stork and the grey-headed fish eagle.

    An aerial view of the last remaining flooded forests in the Lower Mekong River. These forests are a diverse, wetland mosaic, home to a large number of threatened species including the lesser adjutant stork and the grey-headed fish eagle.

  • The white-shouldered ibis is one of the World’s rarest birds being found only in the forests of the central Mekong and its major tributaries.

    The white-shouldered ibis is one of the World’s rarest birds being found only in the forests of the central Mekong and its major tributaries

  • WWF staff reviewing a map of the Mekong River Basin. From left to right: Stuart Chapman, Interim Representative for WWF’s Greater Mekong Program; Gordon Congdon, Freshwater Coordinator, WWF-Cambodia; Michelle Owen, Country Director, WWF-Cambodia; Carter R

    WWF staff reviewing a map of the Mekong River Basin. From left to right: Stuart Chapman, Interim Representative for WWF’s Greater Mekong Program; Gordon Congdon, Freshwater Coordinator, WWF-Cambodia; Michelle Owen, Country Director, WWF-Cambodia; Carter Roberts, President & CEO, WWF-US.

  • Local community member along the Mekong River selling fresh figs to boaters who pass by. Non-Timber Forest Products such as figs play an important role in rural livelihoods across the Mekong Region.

    Local community member along the Mekong River selling fresh figs to boaters who pass by. Non-Timber Forest Products such as figs play an important role in rural livelihoods across the Mekong Region.

  • An aerial view of the Eastern Plains Landscape—a vast wilderness of deciduous forests spanning eastern Cambodia into southwestern Vietnam. These seasonally flooded forests, home to the indigenous Phnong ethnic communities, are one of the last refuges for

    An aerial view of the Eastern Plains Landscape—a vast wilderness of deciduous forests spanning eastern Cambodia into southwestern Vietnam. These seasonally flooded forests, home to the indigenous Phnong ethnic communities, are one of the last refuges for a host of critically endangered animals such as Eld’s deer, banteng, giant ibis, and four species of vulture.

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