Will Southeast Asia’s Hydro Rush Drown the Giant Catfish?

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It’s hard to overstate the fever for hydroelectric power that has infected southeast Asia in recent years. Hydro power has more than tripled across the region since 1980, a growth that is pinned primarily to the mighty waters of the Mekong, the huge and powerful river that winds its way from the Tibetan–Qinghai Plateau, through Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, eventually emptying into Vietnam. Three large hydroelectric dams have been build along the mainstream Mekong in China today, and at least 16 more are under construction or consideration, including in the wildly diverse lower Mekong area.

A new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report out this week raises a big red flag over one of the potential casualties of this push for power: the Mekong giant catfish. This bottom-dwelling behemoth, which grows nearly 10 feet long and can weigh in at over 770 pounds, is already critically endangered, and one of the aforementioned dams, now in its final stages of approval, threatens to deliver the threatened fish its coup de grace. (Sans the grace.)

Not a whole lot is known about this rare beast that lives in the Mekong’s murky depths. But scientists believe the giant catfish migrates from Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake to spawn in Laos and Thailand. Though the river’s tributaries have been dammed, the main, lower portion of the Mekong, where the catfish’s migration takes place, has not been harnessed for hydroelectricity — yet. The dam in Laos’ Sayabouly province would be the first. It would also create a physical barrier that the giant catfish would not be able to cross to procreate, says WWF.

It’s very bad news for the world’s third largest fish, and several other big aquatic species in the area. The giant catfish’s numbers have already plummeted 90% in the 20 years, challenged by the damming of the Mekong tributaries, overfishing and silt, among other things.

It’s tough, because hydropower is a clean, renewable energy source — something that Asia certainly could use more of. The Mekong River Commission, a joint body that the governments of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos established in 1995, says it is committed to the sustainable development of the Mekong basin, but balances that pledge “with the economic and poverty alleviation priorities of the MRC Member Countries.” The river runs through some of the most impoverished communities in Asia, and generating private investment in these areas is high on each government’s to-do list.

But where to draw the line? The damming of the Mekong proper is expected to disrupt the livelihoods of the millions of people who survive on the Mekong, as well as make the lower delta region more vulnerable to erosion as sediment and silt that would normally flow downstream is blocked. As for the giant catfish, the adults of the species may only number in the hundreds now. If those remaining few can’t get upstream to spawn in a few years, another living creature of mythical proportions will become that and only that — a myth.

Still curious? Check out TIME Asia’s 2007 cover story on the Mekong.