Environment and natural resources

The Lower Mekong region is  one of the most natural-resource rich and bio-diverse areas in the world, and also one of those at highest risk.


Biodiversity hotspot

The five countries are almost completely encompassed within the Indo-Burma hotspot, one of the world’s top ten critical areas for biodiversity. The 2,373,000 km2 area includes all of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and most of Myanmar and Thailand, as well as parts of Bangladesh, Malaysia and southern China. There were 115 new species discovered in this region just in 2016.1 Even so, with its fast pace of development and changing landscapes, it is ranked fifth in the world at threat from humans.2

Indo-Burma biodiversity hotspot


At the heart of the Indo-Burma hotspot is the Lower Mekong Basin (LMB). The 4,350 km-long Mekong river, which stretches from the Himalayas to the South China Sea, binds together the five Lower Mekong countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam), along with China’s Yunan Province, and provides critical ecosystem services, such as water and biodiversity, to support the region’s growing population and economies.

More is being discovered about the region’s flora and fauna on a weekly basis, with over 100 new species described for the first time each year. In 2016 this included three mammals, two fish, 11 reptiles, 11 amphibians, and 88 plants. Between 1997 and 2016, 2,524 new species of plants, birds, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians were reported in the region for the first time.3

Apart from the LMB, the region includes a wide variety of other ecosystems, including mixed wet evergreen, dry evergreen, deciduous, and montane forests, as well lowland floodplain swamps, and seasonally inundated grasslands.  Limestone karsts, with their own unique ecosystems, characterize the landscape in many areas—most famous among them is Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay. The region’s coastlines and marine areas are also rich in biodiversity (only Laos is landlocked).

The picturesque and biodiverse limestone karsts and caves of Vietnam's Ha Long Bay have made it a World Heritage site.  Photo by Bob DeGraff, taken on 21 February 2015. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic.

The picturesque and biodiverse limestone karsts and caves of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay have made it a World Heritage site. Photo by Bob DeGraff, taken on 21 February 2015. Licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Generic.

Natural resources are central to age-old subsistence practices that have long provided forest, farming and fishing communities with their livelihoods. These ecosystems are equally important to support the region’s  expanding economies. The complex hydrology of the Mekong, and its interface with watersheds and forests, provides the water, sedimentation, and organic matter to support over 14 percent of the world’s paddy rice production in 2016.4 It also makes for the world’s largest freshwater fishery, producing 25% of the world’s freshwater catch.

The region’s forests produce timber and non-timber forest products—including resins, bamboo, and rattan—that are traded both locally and internationally. In the last 2–3 decades, the rush to modernize and industrialize has significantly altered landscapes. Before the 1970s, most of the region was highly forested, but now just 13 percent of primary forest remains.5 WWF forecasts losses of 15–30 million ha by 2030, highest in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar, where deforestation in 2010–2020 alone is projected at 4.8 million ha.6 At least 310 species of fish are listed as threatened in the five Lower Mekong countries.7

Mountains around Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph by zoutedrop, Flickr. Licensed under CC BY-NCl 2.0.

Mountains around Chiang Mai, Thailand. Photograph by zoutedrop, Flickr (cropped), taken 25 June 2008. Licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

The development of hydropower, the anticipated expansion of mineral extraction, and the transition of agrarian systems to agro-industrial production are set to alter landscapes still further. The Lower Mekong region is considered be at high risk for climate change. By 2030 the Mekong basin’s mean temperature is likely to increase by 0.79°C, with greater increases for the colder catchments in the north.8

Source: IUCN. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2015-4. Created by ODI, August 2015. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. View this data in the ODI DataHub.

ASEAN and the Greater Mekong Subregion countries have nonetheless addressed environmental protection via programs such as the 2014 Preah Sihanouk Declaration on Building Coastal Resilience to Climate Change Impacts in Southeast Asia9, and the ASEAN Environmental Education Action Plans10.These and other agreements seek to recognize the potential economic growth in the region, while acknowledging the value of its biodiversity and natural resources.

Related to environment and natural resources


  • 1.  WWF, December 2017. http://greatermekong.panda.org/discovering_the_greater_mekong/species/new_species/stranger_species/ accessed 22 December 2017
  • 2. Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund. “Indo-Burma Hotspot.”  Accessed 8 April 2015. http://www.cepf.net/resources/hotspots/Asia-Pacific/Pages/Indo-Burma.aspx. 
  • 3. WWF 2017 op cit.
  • 4. Total 2016 paddy rice production of LMB countries: 102,574,000t; total global 2016 paddy rice production: 715,756,000 t. International Rice Research Institute. “World Rice Statistics.” http://ricestat.irri.org:8080/wrsv3/entrypoint.htm Accessed 19 May 2017.
  • 5. WWF 2015. WWF Living Forests Report. http://d2ouvy59p0dg6k.cloudfront.net/downloads/living_forests_report_chapter_5___saving_forests_at_risk.pdf accessed 19 May 2017.
  • 6. Ibid
  • 7. International Union for the Conservation of Nature. “Red List, Table 5: Threatened Species in Each Country (Totals by Taxonomic Group).” Accessed 3 April 2015. http://cmsdocs.s3.amazonaws.com/summarystats/2014_3_Summary_Stats_Page_Documents/2014_3_RL_Stats_Table_5.pdf.
  • 8.  Lebel, L., C.T. Hoanh, C. Krittasudthacheewa and R. Daniel, eds. 2014. Climate Risks, Regional Integration and Sustainability in the Mekong Region. Kuala Lumpur: SIRD. Accessed 4 April 2015. http://www.sumernet.org/content/e-version-sumernet-book-now-available. View on Open Development Datahub
  • 9.  Third Annual Coastal Forum of the Building Coastal Resilience Project. 2014. “The Preah Sihanouk Declaration on Building Coastal Resilience to Climate Change Impacts in Southeast Asia.” http://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/3rd_coastal_forum__preah_sihanouk_declaration.pdf. Accessed 2 February 2015. View on Open Development Datahub
  • 10. ASEAN. “Cooperation on Environment.” Accessed 1 April 2015. http://environment.asean.org/action-plans/. 
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