The Mekong floodplains cover approximately 70 000 km2, and include the largest contiguous wetland in Southeast Asia, Tonle Sap in Cambodia. More than 50% of Vietnam’s rice is cultivated in floodplains. Recent rapid economic growth, fueled by the region’s wider integration into the world economy, has led to greater exploitation of its natural resources for export, consumption, manufacturing and energy generation.

This rapid growth is expected to continue, and is leading to deterioration of floodplain natural resources. The growth in hydropower in the region has also concerned conservationists and scientists, who perceive it as a threat to the river’s biodiversity and community livelihoods. The impacts of area dams however, are still not fully understood, and this paper argues that the emphasis on dams alone has distracted discussions, and potential policy implications, from other local threats that have taken a significant toll on the Mekong floodplain environment.

This article illustrates recent environmental changes in the Mekong floodplains, with a focus on water resources, floodplain vegetation and fish. It argues that efforts by the international scientific community to advance knowledge on sustainability in the Mekong have focused mainly on hydropower dams alone, and this does not present the full environmental picture as other drivers are also transforming the floodplains and fueling ecosystem deterioration. It concludes by highlighting strategies to improve sustainability.