The Himalayas are the source of many mighty rivers we know. Ganga, Sindhu, Yamuna, Bhagirathi, Irrawaddy and Brahmaputra to name a few. But longer and massive than all of them is Mekong, the mightier lifeline of South East Asia.
River Mekong gets its English name surprisingly from its Cambodian name Mekongk. In Khmer, the Cambodian language that dominates the root of most Southeast Asian languages, ‘mé’ means ‘mother’ and ‘Khongk’ is a form derived from Ganga. So, Mekong started as Mother Ganga celebrating the deep Indian influences and spiritual connections the region has had with India for centuries.
Mekong flows southeast from Tibet and enters the Yunnan province of China. It then snakes its way around to the border of China, Myanmar and Laos. In another 100 kilometers, its general southern flow takes the river to the tri-country meeting point with Thailand, Myanmar and Laos.
During its run of 4,350 km, Mekong touches and shapes the lives of 66 million people in six countries, most of them in the Southeast Asian countries outside China. The river is the source of food for millions of people who rely on subsistence fisheries for food security, and also support tens of thousands of businesses. The businesses range from the shops and food stalls that supply fishing families to boat builders and fishing gear suppliers.
Mekong also hosts one of the most important animal migrations and definitely one of the largest, in terms of sheer numbers of animals on the move, in the murky depths of the rivers and connected lakes. In Cambodia alone, each year, billions of fish of all shapes and sizes embark on one of the most incredible animal migrations on the planet. These migrations are just as majestic as the other animal migrations that take place on land, like the animal migrations in Africa, the epic journeys of the monarch butterflies seeking mountain shelter in Mexico or songbirds traveling thousands of miles to reach their tropical wintering gardens.
The migration starts in early fall immediately after the floodwaters of Tonle Sap Lake in Cambodia crests after the monsoon rains. Tonle Sap is the largest lake in Southeast Asia and it expels vast quantities of water and fish down the natural distributaries that connect the lake to Mekong River. Mekong giant catfish (now endangered) is the first fish to begin the journey. This fish called ‘trey reach’ or royal fish is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world which can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh over 600 pounds.
Hundreds of different kinds of fish follow the lead of the royal fish. They include tiger perch, freshwater pufferfish and slimy mud eels. The migrations keep the fish population abundant, healthy and ready to be caught by the local fishermen. National Geographic estimates the number of fish caught in a single season to be more than five billion individual fish. Thirteen times more fish are caught annually from the Mekong than from all of North America’s lakes and rivers combined!
A trip to the upper reaches of Mekong
Even though I have crossed Mekong River many times by air, the trip I took recently brought me for the first time to the smells and sounds of the northern reaches of this mighty waterway.
The trip began with a four-hour direct flight from Kochi to Bangkok followed by a one-hour connecting flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is situated some 700 km northeast of Bangkok and was the former capital of the ancient Lan Na kingdom that eventually merged with the Kingdom of Siam, the country that came to be known as Thailand in modern days.
A five-hour bus trip from Chiang Mai took me some 200 km north to the city of Chiang Rai, the northernmost large city in Thailand. Traveling another 60 kilometers along a winding but scenic route shouldering ancient Buddhist temples, lush green rice field terraces and old growth trees took me to the Thai hamlet of Chiang Saen, the northernmost point of Thailand on the edge of the infamous Golden Triangle perched on the banks of Mekong River.
The Golden Triangle
The endearing name ‘Golden Triangle’ is a misleading phrase for a region that invokes fear among visitors as well as residents. It is around Chiang Saen that Mekong skirts majestically around three countries- Laos, Thailand and Myanmar, around the bends of the river in rowing distance. Mekong is wide and deep around here with a steady flow that is fast and furious. Isolated fishing boats adorn the scenery along with equally isolated tour boats taking adventurous outsiders for a ride around one of the trickiest corners of the world. And, a mere 100 km upstream is Chinese border where Mekong makes its gala entrance to the southern countries.
Lavishly lush jungles, mist-shrouded mountains, the music of water flow in the Mekong, intriguing hill-tribe villages and soothing views of rice paddies dot the landscape of the Golden Triangle. This area received notoriety as one of the world’s most prolific opium growing regions in supplying deadly heroine to the rest of the world. Only Afghanistan challenges this region for the size of drug traffic that still takes place continuously. The phrase Golden Triangle was coined by the CIA but the name stuck and has now famously refers to a vast area for poppy cultivation, processing of heroin, trading it with other countries and remains the fulcrum for all related violence. Though the Thai government made poppy growing illegal decades ago, the trade continues thanks to the relative ease with which it can operate in Laos and Myanmar.
Today Chiang Saen hosts the “House of Opium,” a museum set up by Thailand to educate the public about opium. The museum claims that it exhibits “every angle of the opium story, starting from the history of the Golden Triangle, the origin of opium, the opium war, opium warlords, drug smugglers, opium effects, the battle against opium and poppy growing, to rehabilitation of living conditions of the people who live in the central of the Golden Triangle, the former worldwide infamous drug trading zone.” The museum is a great resource for researchers and casual onlookers even though it proclaims a sad commentary about a substance that continues to destroy young minds, disintegrates families and often results in unparalleled violence by drug lords.
Not too far from the museum is a magnificent statue of Ganesh proclaiming the strong cultural connection of the region with Hindu traditions. A very large golden Buddha sculpture with a gentle smile and impressive workmanship adorns the banks of Mekong on the Thai side blessing the river traffic and projecting immense benevolence towards the other side of the river, the “People’s Republic of Laos.”
The official name of Laos proclaims its kinship with other People’s Republics most notably China with which it signed a ‘Friendship Treaty’ in 1977. China is now extending its tentacles into Laos as it does in other countries in the area such as Myanmar, Thailand and Cambodia. Across the Mekong from Chiang Saen one can see the so called ‘special economic zone’ that Laos has established with Chinese aid on the island of Don Sao. Today, we can see huge casinos being built by the Chinese aimed at foreign tourists but also meeting the needs of the increasingly more affluent domestic clientele. We were able to visit Don Sao without a visa.
Hunger for power and the need to dispose trash
Rapid economic growth and expanding industrial base have made the thirst for electric power increase astronomically in China. Its energy demand is set to increase by 90 percent over the next 20 years. In both response and anticipation as well as giddy with the potential for cheap energy production, China has already constructed 10 dams on the Mekong’s mainstream, and aims to complete nine more during the next decade. Some 160 more dams are planned for the tributaries of Mekong. That is nearly 200 new dams interfering with the free flow of Mekong from China to the five southern countries that depends on their Mother Ganga for survival.
A recent book “Last Days of the Mighty Mekong,” by Brian Eyler who is a Director for Southeast Asia Programs of the Stimson Center in Washington, DC chronicles the ecological cost of human interference, with the flow of Mekong. While the bulk of the problems arise on Chinese soil, Eyler contends that the lower countries too are contributing to the slow but steady demise of Mekong.
Mekong is one of the ten rivers that collectively discharge 95% of the plastics suffocating the world’s oceans. Also, China, Vietnam and Thailand are among the top five (Indonesia and the Philippines are the others) countries that dump plastic waste to the ocean- creating plastic pollution more than the rest of the world combined. Families of Cambodia, another Mekong country, use 10 times more plastic than developed western countries of comparable size. In Myanmar the situation is equally bad and 200 tons of plastic waste is dumped to its waterways every day. And Mekong receives its fair share from this dumping also. Mekong has slowly but steadily transformed into the main dumpster for plastic waste in Southeast Asia.
Battery of Asia
China’s client state of Laos is landlocked, has a stagnant economy, has no known natural resources and its relationships with affluent nations are strained. So, it does not export anything substantial and does not attract foreign investment similar the neighboring countries of Thailand or even Vietnam. To improve its subsistence economy, Laos wants to exploit its river, the Mekong, to its full hydroelectric potential. The government has been beating the drum of becoming the “Battery of Asia” by producing cheap electricity using hydropower and supply all the more industrial nations in the neighborhood.
So, Laos is building dams and more dams. By the end of 2018, Laos had built 53 hydropower dams. It was also disclosed that 36 more dams are under construction and scheduled for completion by 2020 empowering Laos to profit by exporting cheap electricity to Thailand. Laotian authorities seem to be oblivious to the hidden cost of selling cheap power through the loss of traditional livelihoods, degradation of the environment, destruction of the biodiversity of Mekong River and more.
While the optimism of the ‘battery’ continued, a major catastrophe struck Laos on July 23, 2018. A dam failed in the marquee 410 megawatt Xe-Pian Xe-Namnoy hydroelectric project on the Mekong. Laotian officials predictably undercounted the human toll due to this massive dam failure which fortunately received worldwide media coverage. At least 50 people were killed and 100 people were missing in the aftermath of the resulting floods. Cameras captured the devastation that made more than 6500 people homeless. While the ecological damage of impudent policies is slow to recognize or feel, structural failure of the dam captured a dramatic video archive of the carnage immediately following the break.
Shortly after the dam disaster last year, the government of Laos announced it would examine safety standards at all planned dams, suspend new projects and reconsider its “Battery of Asia” policy. It is still early to verify whether Laos has fully realized the perpetual tragedy that damming the Mekong would wreak on the population that lives on the 2000 km-long basin below.
Life along Mekong
Mekong snakes around through five countries below China and directly or indirectly influence the lives of 60 million people. Agriculture, fishing, and collection of aquatic life are the primary vocation of 85% of the people living in the river basin. Two thirds of these people depend entirely on Mekong and its tributaries for daily sustenance.
The river is also the source of the entire water supply for major cities like Vientiane and Phnom Penh, the capital cities of Laos and Cambodia respectively as well as many smaller urban areas along its circuitous route towards Mekong Delta in Vietnam. All urban irrigation during dry seasons depend on the water from the river.
Much of Laos, Thailand and Cambodia can be hot and dry during the summer months. While the temperature favors agricultural growth, such growth cannot occur without irrigated water. Of course, it is Mekong water that is used for facilitating agriculture. Furthermore, the dry river banks with soil rich in silt form essential fertile grounds for cultivation.
Freshwater fish caught from Mekong and its tributaries form an important source of protein for people in the river basin in all of Southeast Asia. Around 40 million people are involved in fishing and industries associated with fishing. The singularly important fishing ground is the Tonle Sam Lake and the surrounding flood plains. About 40% of the population of Cambodia depends on this lake formation for survival.
Mekong is also important for transportation. Though natural barriers like waterfalls such as Khone Falls near the Laos-Cambodian border and other swirls impede continuous transportation, Mekong has major stretches of navigable water where the river travel is smooth and the flow abundant. The many floating markets and floating houses depend on the river. Since railroads are absent and good roads are in short supply, Laos depends more on Mekong for transportation than the more developed countries such as Thailand. Most of the country’s settlements are on river banks and so are almost all its cities. Smaller seagoing vessels can travel as far north as Phnom Penh and the extensive canals that are present in the Mekong Delta allow larger vessels to move around in that area.
In countries like Laos, Cambodia and Thailand, where Buddhist temples and monasteries adorn the river banks, Mekong also influences the spiritual life of people. In southern Laos people believe that there is a ‘naga palace’ at the bottom of Mekong River where strange spirits reside. Unless offerings and prayers are made at key locations, the belief is that the nagas will swallow the trespassers to the bottomless depths of Mother Mekong. Thai people believe that rivers are vestiges of primordial fights between nagas. Thais ask ‘permission’ from the nagas before engaging in fishing in Mekong.
Good Bye Mother Ganga!
As I was leaving the river banks, I could not help but watch with sadness the many plastic bottles and bags floating around the river edges. They are destined to flow down thousands of kilometers downstream through Laos and the lakes and estuaries of Cambodia, and end up in Indian Ocean through the deltas of Vietnam. At least the flow was robust, thanks to the healthy monsoons that the Indian Ocean sent in the northeastern direction this season.
However, Brian Eyler predicts bleak future for Mekong. First, the Himalayan glaciers that provide the initial run for Mekong are expected to trickle down to extinction in 20-25 years. And, then there is the cost of economic development. While all countries in the Mekong basin have bruised the river one way or another, Eyler puts the blame squarely on Chinese shoulders. He contends that the Chinese model of economic expansion defined by “top-down, investment-led capitalism at the expense of protecting communities and natural biodiversity” is shortsighted and is already causing irreparable damage to life that depends on the river.
Southeast Asia’s Mother Ganga is continuing to sob softly. Let us hope that the recent major structural failure of the dam will provide a much needed pause in the hurried projects around this mighty river that waters many valleys, harbors an unparalleled biodiversity in its belly and feeds millions of people in its long trek.