It's known as the "Mother of Water."
As the 12th longest river in the world, the mighty Mekong River indeed nourishes many. It supports the largest freshwater fish harvest in the world, providing the primary source of protein to more than 50 million people as it runs its course through six countries, including Laos, China, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam.
The river's creatures sound like the stuff of fantasy novels – freshwater dolphins, giant stingrays (as big as your living room!) and 400-pound catfish. But they're real, and they face an uncertain future.
In December, Nature Conservancy scientist Jeff Opperman will take his family on a 1,500-mile journey along this incredible river.
He'll bring his wife and two children, including 10-year-old Luca and 8-year-old Wren, who, though excited, is also concerned about missing a traditional Christmas at home – palm trees and curry instead of snow and turkey.
"We want the kids to experience a place where people are directly connected to the river, in terms of their livelihood and culture," says Jeff.
There's some urgency to the timing of this journey. "The river is at a crossroads," Jeff continues. "Even 10 to 20 years from now, it could be a very different place."
The Mekong River is largely untapped for hydropower. However, dozens of dams are planned and decisions about dam development—such as how many are built and in what locations—will have a huge impact on fish populations. "The Mekong, you could say, is really the global focus for the debate about the sustainability of large dams and hydropower," offers Jeff.
The river is much more than a fascinating destination for his family. He’s helping to build the scientific support for the Great Rivers Partnership (GRP), a coalition of partners working to develop sustainable solutions for our world's most important rivers.
It was recently announced that the GRP will be expanding to encompass eight rivers, including the Mekong, where partners such as WWF are working with governments and communities to conserve its resources. On this trip, Jeff hopes to learn about this river, its challenges and opportunities, and make connections with the conservation scientists working to keep it healthy.
He and his family will be sending dispatches from their trip this winter.
Return to Nature.org/MekongJourney for photos, videos and updates from their travels.