The most influential geographical feature of Laos is the Mekong River, which flows nearly 2,000km down the length of the country.
The Mekong’s watershed covers almost all of Laos, and the river picks up more than half of its water flow during its journey north to south through the country.
Considered one of the world’s great rivers, the Mekong stretches 4,909km – twice the distance from London to Moscow – from the Tibetan Plateau to Vietnam, where it empties into the South China Sea.
The Mekong River Basin covers an area larger than Australia, and supports more than 70 million people who live, fish and farm by it.
As well as supporting human life, the Mekong is one of the most biodiverse rivers in the world; only the Amazon and the Congo can boast higher levels of animal and plant life.
The Laos portion of the Mekong is particularly renowned for its diversity of species, thanks to the heat and humidity of this tropical region that nourishes a wealth of wildlife in and around the river.
In fact, no other river is home to so many species of large fish, including the giant river carp, the Siamese giant carp and the Mekong giant catfish that can reach 300kg and 1.5 metres in length.
As a result, the Mekong is one of the world’s most prolific fisheries, yielding more than two million tonnes of fish each year – twice the amount caught in the North Sea.
Fishing supports most of Laos’s lowland dwellers, while the Mekong has begun to provide another source of income to the country by way of electricity generation.
A series of dams have been constructed along the Mekong and more are planned, which could make Laos Southeast Asia’s biggest supplier of hydroelectricity.
While benefiting Laos and its citizens greatly, many argue that the dams risk harming the rich variety of life in the Mekong. Already, the numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins have dwindled across the Mekong.
However, conservation projects in Laos are working with local fishermen to regulate how fish are caught to minimise the losses from the dams; fish stocks are beginning to increase once again.