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Requiem for a River: From Tibet to Vietnam, the Mekong region is the rice bowl of Asia

February 15, 2016

WTN editors have edited this article for length. The full article can be accessed at

The Economist, February 11, 2016 - GUO, the driver, pulls his car to a merciful halt high above a crevasse: time for a cigarette, and after seven hours of shuddering along narrow, twisting roads, time for his passengers to check that their fillings remain in place. Lighting up, he steps out of the car and dons a cloth cap and jacket: sunny, early-summer days are still brisk 3,500 metres above sea level. Mr Guo is an impish little dumpling of a man, bald, brown-toothed and jolly. He is also an anomaly: a Shanghainese in northern Yunnan who opted to stay with his local bride rather than return to his booming hometown.

The ribbon of brown water cutting swiftly through the gorge below is rich with snowmelt. With few cars passing, its echoing sound fills the air. In the distance, the Hengduan mountains slump under their snowpack as if crumpled beneath its weight. Mr Guo recalls the drivers who have taken a switchback too quickly and fallen to their deaths in the valley below. He tells of workers who lost their footing or whose harnesses failed while building a bridge near his home town of Cizhong, 20 or 30 kilometres south. He pulls hard on his cigarette. “This river”, he says, “has taken so many lives.”

It has sustained many more. From trickles of meltwater in arid Qinghai, the river grows quickly as it passes through Tibet and Yunnan. Leaving China, and in doing so changing its name from the Lancang to the Mekong, it descends through a landscape ripening into jungle. Swollen by rainforest tributaries, it defines the Myanmar-Laos border and most of the Laos-Thailand border. It cuts Cambodia in two, and then splits into distributaries in south-western Vietnam, the lush, claustral delta landscape opposite in every way to the craggy austerity where it began.

The Mekong region is Asia’s rice bowl: in 2014 lower Mekong countries (Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Vietnam) produced more than 100m tonnes of rice, around 15% of the world’s total. The region’s fertile soil depends on nutrient-rich sediment that the Mekong carries downriver, mainly during the rainy season from June to October; more than half the sediment in central Cambodia comes from China. The river and the nutrients it brings also support the world’s biggest inland fishery, accounting for a quarter of the global freshwater catch, feeding tens of millions of people.

The region boasts remarkable biodiversity; only the vast basins of the Congo and the Amazon compare to or surpass it. There are more than 20,000 types of plant and nearly 2,500 animal species; freshwater dolphins and giant catfish; spiders 30 centimetres across and, in a limestone cavern in Thailand, a day-glo pink, cyanide-secreting millipede. The human diversity is striking, too: Tibetan monks pray; Burmese traders buy and sell; Cambodian fishermen cast nets; Thai farmers reap; Vietnamese markets float. The history is as rich as the soil. The Buddha smiled while resting at the northern Lao city of Luang Prabang. Angkor Wat on the Mekong-fed Tonle Sap lake was among the biggest cities of the preindustrial world. The Khmer empire that built it dominated South-East Asia for longer than there have been Europeans in the Americas.

Since its French colonial days the Mekong has been more of a backwater. But the life-changing development seen elsewhere in Asia is spreading into this mostly rural world. Pickup trucks are replacing bullock-carts, karaoke bars dot lonely two-lane roads, fishermen can catch up on soap-operas at night. People are getting richer, and their lives longer.

And as modernity comes into the region, it also seeks to take something out. Countries see a new resource in the Mekong: not the support it offers rich networks of life, but the simple fact of its flow. The hydroelectric dams now built on and planned for the Mekong amount to one of the largest-ever interventions in a river’s course. As its currents are rechannelled down copper conduits to power far-off cities the river itself will be trapped behind a series of concrete walls. Its fisheries, agriculture and biodiversity will suffer; the lives lived on its banks will be reshaped with scant regard for the feelings of those who lead them

THE scent of woodsmoke from Mr Guo’s cast-iron stove hangs heavy in the brisk evening air. The household generator is switched off for the night, and the low kitchen in which his family and two guests gather is made cozy by the light of kerosene lamps. His wife brings a succession of bowls to the table: steamed rice, chunks cut from a salted pig’s leg that hangs above the stove, lettuce braised with garlic, scraps of beef sautéed with chilies, and tsampa, a roast barley powder favoured by his ethnically Tibetan family. His mother-in-law serves a medicinal-tasting infusion made from local leaves and berries, as well as eggshell cups of local wine. The wine tastes as though it was made by someone who knew only two things about wine: it is supposed to be red, and it is supposed to get you drunk.

A little way downriver, a state-owned power utility is building the 990-megawatt Wunonglong dam. In 1995 the Manwan dam, some 600km farther downstream, became the first to stem the river’s flow. Since then five more dams have been finished along its Chinese reach; the Wunonglong dam is one of a further 14 being planned or built there.

China’s Communist Party has long been keen on dams. At least 86,000 have been built over the past six decades, providing 282 gigawatts (GW) of installed hydroelectric capacity by 2014. The government is building yet more to curb the country’s greenhouse-gas emissions. By 2020 it wants an astonishing 350GW of installed hydropower capacity; in the European Union that would be enough to meet about three-quarters of total electricity needs. The dam at Wunonglong, about 300 metres long and more than 100 metres high, will provide a smidgen less than one of those extra gigawatts. The other 13 are expected to add 15.1GW more.

Downriver countries intend to build another 11 large dams on the Mekong, with dozens more planned for its tributaries. In 20 years the Mekong could well be dammed from Tibet to just above Phnom Penh, where the delta begins. In no other large river basin in the world is the planned rate of growth of hydropower as great.

The dams will change the quality of the water in the river and the rate at which it flows. Some of this change could be for the better. Dams can prevent flooding by regulating the flow of water downstream. But some Mekong riverbank agriculture would not welcome too steady a flow. Increasing water in the dry season would shrink riverbeds, leaving less space for crops—millions of Mekong-basin dwellers grow vegetables on riverbanks. Reducing water in the rainy season produces smaller floodplains with less sediment deposited in them, impoverishing the soil.

According to International Rivers, an environmental NGO, the full cascade of dams planned for the Lancang would trap nearly all of the sediment coming from China, cutting the water’s sediment load in half. That will be bad for soils and bad for fish; the sediments provide the river’s nutrients. And the dams lower down could worsen the problem; the clear, “hungry” water that flows from them in spates will carry away existing sediment in riverbanks and riverbeds. Some of that will be deposited farther still downstream; some will wash uselessly out to sea.

Those lower dams will also make things yet harder for the nutrient-deprived fish. The 11 proposed in Laos and Cambodia could block the migration of around 70% of the Mekong’s commercial fish catch. Interfering with the fish’s feeding and reproduction to that extent would imperil the food security of populations across the lower Mekong basin, where the average person eats some 60kg of freshwater fish per year, more than 18 times what is on the menu in Europe or America. Considering how poor many of the people here are, replacing fish as a primary protein source is virtually impossible.

Dams restrict the movement of fish; they force movement on people. Along the road leading out of Cizhong, past the dormitories housing the construction workers for the Wunonglong dam, He Zhenghai, a friend of Mr Guo, points to a denuded spot where a village used to be. A few kilometres farther on he points out the resettlement: rows of squat, charmless concrete structures plonked down along the side of the road, near nothing.

Estimates by NGOs of the total number of Chinese people resettled because of dam projects exceed 20m. Dams on the Lancang have already added thousands more, mostly poor rural farmers, to the total. In 2013 the compensation received on relocation was about 80,000 yuan ($12,500). Some farmers complain that they have been resettled on sheer hillsides ill-suited to farming and, to add insult to injury, chronically short of water.

The Wunonglong dam will inundate Yanmen, a nearby village whose residents will be resettled on Cizhong’s rice paddies. And this means that, in a way, Cizhong, too, will vanish. Brian Eyler, deputy director of the South-East Asia programme at the Stimson Centre, an American think-tank, says Yanmen sits above Cizhong in China’s administrative league tables, meaning that after resettlement Cizhong will be renamed Yanmen, losing its name along with much of its charm.

[In Cambodia] CHANG NAA stands up on the prow of his narrow wooden canoe and casts a small net into the water under the watchful eyes of his son Chang Thung, a four-year-old as solid and sombre as his father is lithe and placid. Beneath the canoe’s tattered fabric roof his wife stirs a pot of samlaa macchu, a sour soup. Before serving it she rinses the dishes in the murky water.

The Tonle Sap river is a two-way tributary which joins the Mekong about 800km downriver from Xayaburi, at Phnom Penh. In drier seasons it drains South-East Asia’s biggest freshwater lake, also called the Tonle Sap, into the Mekong; during the monsoon it flows the other way, bringing water and sediment from the Mekong to the lake.

At this point in the river’s descent to the sea, its potential as a power generator has been used up. The lowest lying of the dams under discussion, Cambodia’s dam at Sambor, lies around 300km upriver. Cambodia’s fisheries thus illustrate the fundamental political tension at the heart of the region’s development: upstream economies overwhelmingly reap the benefits of changes to the river’s regime, while those downstream bear the cost.

This is the way with all rivers, but all the more so with the Mekong, because the geographical hierarchy reflects the geopolitical one. China, the most powerful nation, has the high ground and the most hydropower potential. It is also least dependent on the river’s water for other purposes (though it has plans to divert some of it away to its thirsty east anyway), the least susceptible to civil-society pressure and the least interested in binding itself to an international order.

This worries everyone downstream. China and Thailand have long enjoyed good relations, and China has bought goodwill in Laos and Cambodia with massive infrastructure investments. But Myanmar has opened up to the West in the past five years in part to counterbalance Chinese influence. Vietnam fears its powerful northern neighbour—China invaded as recently as 1979, and the two countries contest territory in the South China Sea—and anti-China sentiment has been rising in Laos. As China has grown more regionally assertive, Laos and Vietnam have sought to deepen their relations with America. Yet that will probably do very little to dissuade China from building more dams, any more than the objections of Laos’s vastly richer and more populous neighbour Vietnam deterred it from building its dam at Xayaburi.

For now the Mekong, which began as a trickle of snowmelt high up in Tibetan cloud-country, slices through riots of tropical green to meet the South China Sea [in Vietnam] in a network of river mouths known as the “nine dragon river delta” in what appears to be much the same way as it always has. Tourists who watch women haggling in floating markets over baskets of mangosteen and fresh fish, or who see peasants in conical hats farming paddies by hand, imagine that they are witnessing something timeless—life as it always has been, its rhythms dictated by seasons, land and sea. But though it seems they are witnessing a pastoral, what they are seeing is in fact the opening scene of a tragedy: the part where the characters act as they always have, but their fate looms large.

Eventually, all rivers empty into oceans; water comes together with other waters. But for this river, at this delta, the sense of an eternal return is lessened, that of an ending heightened. The seas, driven by a century of global industry, rise higher, while for the sake of a little more industrial power, the gifts of the river are being squandered. Life as it has been is not life as it will be. The days of stepping into the river are numbered.

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