New York Times
December 18, 2009
SOP RUAK, Thailand — Basket loads of fish, villagers bathing along the banks of the river, a farmer’s market selling jungle delicacies — these are Pornlert Prompanya’s boyhood memories of a wild and pristine Mekong River.
Mr. Pornlert — now 32 and the owner of a company that organizes speedboat outings for tourists in this village in northern Thailand, where Myanmar and Laos converge — peers across the Mekong today at a more modern picture: a newly constructed gold-domed casino where high rollers are chauffeured along the riverbanks in a Bentley and a stretch Cadillac limousine.
The Mekong has long held a mystique for outsiders, whether they be American G.I.’s in the Delta during the Vietnam War or ill-starred 19th-century French explorers who searched for the river’s source in Tibet. The earliest visitors realized the hard way that the river was untamed and treacherous, its waterfalls and rapids ensuring it would never become Southeast Asia’s Mississippi or Rhine.
But today the river, which courses 3,032 miles through parts of China, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam before emptying into the South China Sea, is rapidly being transformed by economic development, the region’s thirst for electricity and the desire to use the river as a cargo thoroughfare. The Mekong has been spared the pollution that blackens many of Asia’s rivers, but it is no longer the backwater of centuries past.
China has built three hydroelectric dams on the Mekong (known as the Lancang in Chinese) and is halfway through a fourth at Xiaowan, in Yunnan Province, which when completed will be the world’s tallest dam, according to the United Nations Environment Program.
Laos is planning so many dams o n the Mekong and its tributaries — 7 of about 70 have been completed — that government officials have said their ambition is to turn the country into “the battery of Asia.” Cambodia is planning two dams. At the same time, the dashed dreams of French colonizers to use the river as a southern gateway to China are being partly realized: After Chinese engineers dynamited a series of rapids and rocks in the early part of this decade, trade by riverboat between China and Thailand increased by close to 50 percent.
The cargo passes through increasingly populated areas, erstwhile sleepy cities in Laos that are now teeming with tourists and defying the economic downturn with swinging construction cranes. Many parts of the Mekong were once a stargazer’s dream; now nights on the river are increasingly glaring with electric lights.
Environmentalists worry that the rush to develop the Mekong, particularly the dams, is not only changing the panorama of the river but could also destroy the livelihoods of people who have depended on it for centuries. One of the world’s most bountiful rivers is under threat, warns a series of reports by the United Nations, environmental groups and academics.
The most controversial aspects of the dams are their effects on migrating fish and on the rice-growing Mekong Delta in Vietnam, where half of that country’s food is grown. The delta depends on mineral-rich silt, which the Chinese dams are partly blocking. Experts say the new dams will block even more sediment and the many types of fish that travel great distances to spawn, damaging what the Mekong River Commission, an advisory body set up in 1995 by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam, estimates is a $2 billion fishing industry.
Of the hundreds of fish species in the river, 87 percent are migratory, according to a 2006 study.
“The fish will have nowhere to go,” said Kaew Suanpad, a 78-year-old farmer and fisherman in the village of Nagrasang, Laos, which sits above the river’s great Khone Falls.
“The dams are a very big issue for the 60 million people in the Mekong basin,” said Milton Osborne, visiting fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, Australia, and the author of several books on the Mekong. “People depend in very substantial ways on the bounty of the Mekong.”
Some analysts see the seeds of international conflict in the rush to dam the river. Civic groups in Thailand say they are frustrated that China does not seem to care how its dams affect the lives of people downstream.
In August, the Vietnamese province of An Giang began a “Save the Mekong” campaign that opposes the construction of the dams in the lower part of the river, according to Carl Middleton, the head of the Mekong program at International Rivers, an organization campaigning against the Mekong dams.
Neither China nor military-ruled Myanmar, the two northernmost countries through which the river passes, are members of the Mekong River Commission, freeing them from the obligation to consult other countries on issues like building dams and sharing water. And yet, for now, the dams are not national preoccupations in any of the countries along the river. “Most of the voices that are shouting in the wilderness about these dams are still very little heard outside of academic circles,” Mr. Osbourne said.
There have been no major protests, and for many people in the region the dams are the symbol of progress. The development of the Mekong is also an affirmation of a new Asia that is no longer hidebound by ideological conflict.
Jeremy Bird, the chief executive officer of the Mekong River Commission, says the dams are likely to even out the flow of the river, mitigating flooding and making the river even more navigable. “You could have launches like you have on the Rhine,” Mr. Bird said. He added: “With dams, there are always negatives and positives.”
For Mr. Pornlert, whose boyhood village of Sop Ruak has now grown into a town with five-star resorts and restaurants catering to tourists, the negatives seem to outweigh the good.
He says the river behaves unpredictably, it is more difficult to catch fish, and he is uneasy about swimming in the river because there is “too much trash and pollution.”
“The water level used to depend on the seasons,” Mr. Pornlert said. “Now it depends on how much water China wants and needs.”
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