The Mekong River is born in the snows of Tibet, snaking its way through Myanmar, Laos, and Thailand before it reaches Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Here, it crashes against the smaller Tonle Sap. When the Mekong swells during the rainy season, it forces the weaker river to reverse direction and fill up a giant lake in the country’s heartland near the ancient seat of power, Angkor Wat. This river system is the bread bowl of Cambodia, feeding and employing millions who rely on it for food and tourism.

The river is sacred to many in the region, but it’s facing an existential threat spurred by overzealous development, mostly in the form of Chinese-funded hydropower dams.

The Mekong River Commission (MRC) predicts that, at current rates of development, the river could lose as much as 80% of its total biomass by 2040. As it is, the MRC reported in July 2019 that the water levels in the river during the early flood season were at a record low, caused by a lower-than-usual amount of rainfall and exacerbated by dams. Coupled with climate change, the MRC warns: “such impacts could seriously damage the prospects of Cambodia sustaining lower middle-income status”.

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Andrew Nachemson is a Cambodia-based reporter covering politics and human rights. Formerly with the Phnom Penh Post, he resigned during a mass staff exodus following the paper’s sale to a Malaysian investor with ties to the Cambodian government. His article on the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Cambodia won the 2018 Society of Publishers in Asia award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting.