THE SOURCE OF THE MEKONG: THE BIRTH OF AN INTERNATIONAL RIVER (33°42'38.8"N 94°41'45.4"E)

The CERS expedition to the source of the Mekong in 2007 highlighted the environmental changes at the source of this truly international river. Changing climate and land use at the source of the Mekong flow downstream to affect millions of people living along its banks in six countries.

33°42'38.8" 94°41'45.4", 12:45, 13 May 2007

In 2007, CERS mounted an expedition to the source of the Mekong in Zha Duo Tibetan Autonomous Region in Qinghai. More than any other river in Asia, the Mekong is an international river, and its name changes many times before it reaches the sea in southern Vietnam. The upper river is called the Za Qu by local Tibetans, but it is known as the Lan Cang Jiang (‘The Turbulent River’) as it leaves the Tibet Autonomous Region and enters into Yunnan Province. It becomes the Nam Khong for the Thai, Shan and Lao people living along its banks after it leaves China.

The geographic source is the point on the river from which water has the farthest trip to reach the sea; 4,350 km away. Previous expeditions to find the source, including recent ones by French and Japanese teams, had all fallen short or mistakenly taken a turn to a short tributary at the last. Only with the availability of high resolution satellite images was the true source of the river defined.

Our team included CERS founder and explorer Howman Wong from Hong Kong, professional film maker Chris Dickinson from the U.K., geographer Dr. Martin Ruzek, and wildlife biologist Dr. Bill Bleisch from USA and writer Wang Chih Hong from Taiwan. Our expedition began by vehicle, including a brand new Land Rover Discovery 3 that arrived complete with its own mechanic sent by Land Rover. Despite the mechanic, however, the cars could only get so close to the source of the river, after which the expedition had to change to travel by foot.

The source of the Mekong is just one of many tributaries that contribute to the waters of the Mekong, but it provides a case study of the environment in the entire region. Near the source of the Mekong, our team saw ominous changes in the land. In some places, high numbers of yaks concentrated into small areas have damaged the grasslands.

In other places, the environmental damage seems to be unrelated to grazing. Large blocks of thick turf have detached from the hillsides and are sliding down into the river below. This may be an impact of climate change; as the climate warms, ‘permafrost’ ice that holds the earth in place below the turf can melt, setting the turf free to slide downhill.

Whatever the cause, the result is that the Za Qu is so full of earth from the hillsides above that it runs thick and red even very near the source.