Deltas only form along rivers


Exact length? Unknown

The yellow-brown water sluggishly pushes forward. Movement can hardly be seen with the naked eye. The closer the huge river gets to the sea, the slower it flows in its bed.

Or rather: in nine beds. In its delta, the Mekong has not just one but nine arms. That is why the people in Vietnam also call it the "Nine Dragon River" - here it flows into the South China Sea after its long journey through six countries and a wide variety of landscapes.

For the Chinese it is the "mother of water" or simply the "great water". In fact, the Mekong is one of the ten longest rivers in the world. To this day, however, scientists have not agreed on how long the Mekong actually is.

Its source is in the hard-to-reach Tibetan highlands, and the river is also formed there from several confluences. Chinese researchers say: The Mekong rises near the city of Ganasongdou at an altitude of about 5200 meters. A French expedition, on the other hand, established the river's origin further west and deeper. It is between 4,300 and 4900 kilometers long.

The around 90 million people in the region are certainly relatively indifferent to where their river originates and how long it is. For them, the Mekong is simply vital: it is their most important source of food and energy.

Between temples and rubber tree plantations

The Mekong flows from the Tibetan highlands through the Chinese province of Yunnan. About half of its length is on Chinese territory.

The river finally leaves the Middle Kingdom at a height of 500 meters and then forms the border between Myanmar (Burma) and Laos for around 200 kilometers. The Mekong itself is no man's land here.

You can get an impression of the diversity around the river by exploring it by boat. This is now possible on many sections - with the exception of those that are not navigable because of their rapids, waterfalls and gorges.

For a long time, the countries of the Mekong region were politically isolated and inaccessible to travelers, or at least very difficult to access. Thailand was the first country in the region to orient itself mainly economically towards the west.

"At the moment, the entire region around the Mekong is being fully integrated into the world market," said the sociologist RĂ¼diger Korff, who is Professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Passau, in 2005.

Globalization has even reached a country like Laos, where a pro-socialist government has been in power since 1975. More and more rubber tree plantations are emerging on the fertile soils around the Mekong since the price of rubber on the world market has risen.

Fertile soils on the "Great Water"

At the end of the border between Laos and Myanmar, the Ruak flows into the Mekong. There, Laos and Myanmar form a triangle with Thailand: the Golden Triangle. Formerly notorious for drugs, smuggling and crime, the name is now primarily intended to attract tourists.

Opium production is now banned in all three countries. Yet governments cannot completely stop drug trafficking. In Chiang Saen, Thailand, there has been a royal opium museum since 2005, which explains the development and background of drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle.

A short stretch of the Mekong is the border between Laos and Thailand, before it crosses northwestern Laos in mountainous gorges and with many rapids. South of the Laotian royal city of Luang Prabang - a fascinating combination of buildings from the French colonial era and Buddhist temples and monasteries - the "Big Water" gets a river bed that lives up to its name.

West of the Laotian capital Vientiane, the Mekong becomes the border with Thailand again - now for several hundred kilometers. From southern Laos to its mouth in Vietnam, the river is the region's main artery.

There is one more obstacle on the way to the South China Sea: the Sambor waterfalls. They are already on Cambodian soil. After the waterfalls, the landscape around the Mekong becomes flatter.

Since the river rises up to 15 meters during the rainy season, the banks are regularly flooded. Suspended particles remain, which make the earth fertile and create ideal conditions for the cultivation of rice and other useful plants. It is not for nothing that the Mekong Delta is called the "rice chamber of Vietnam".

Life in the delta: everyday life on the water

Before the river arrives in Vietnam in kilometers width, it provides a geographically unique feature north of the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh: the Tonle Sap River, which actually flows into the Mekong, changes its direction of flow during the rainy season. Then the Mekong pushes its water upstream into the Tonle Sap River.

The masses of water that the Mekong presses into its tributary form the Tonle Sap Lake, the largest inland lake in Southeast Asia. While it is two meters deep in the dry season, it is up to 14 meters in the rainy season.

The Tonle Sap River is not only interesting because of its two directions of flow. It also serves as a connection from the Mekong to the largest temple complex in the world: Angkor, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1992. More than 1000 sanctuaries can be visited here on 200 square kilometers in the jungle. They are up to 1100 years old and were only rediscovered by a French expedition in 1860. Today several million tourists visit the ruins every year.

However, if you do not follow the Tonle Sap River towards Angkor, but continue to follow the "mother of water", the river will split behind the metropolis of Phnom Penh, the largest settlement on the Mekong. As a twin river, it reaches Vietnam from Cambodia and is now several kilometers wide.

The Mekong Delta extends over 70,000 square kilometers and has only a few solid roads. Here one moves mainly on the water - and trades, for example on the canals of Cai Be. Vietnamese farmers from the surrounding area sell their goods directly from the boat to their customers at the floating market.

Danger from climate change

Until a few years ago, people in the delta always had to take the boat when they wanted to cross the Mekong. It was not until 2001 that the first bridge was built across the river in Vietnam, a 1000-meter-long cable-stayed bridge. The construction was a technically difficult task because the entire delta has no solid foundation.

The United Nations Climate Council is particularly concerned about the Mekong estuary. In a report the "Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change" (IPCC) warns of the consequences of global warming. This could lead to the melting of the glaciers in the Himalayas, which could lead to floods, landslides and a deterioration in the water quality of the Mekong in the next 20 to 30 years.

But drought can also be a problem for the Mekong Delta. Because in the upper part of the river - especially in China - many new dams are to be built. For the inhabitants of the delta this would mean that they would lose their habitat in the long term.

To prevent this, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam founded the Mekong River Commission in 1995. Together with international environmental protection organizations such as the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF), it strives for sustainable development and protection of the Mekong.