Why I’m Running a Marathon for the Mekong

David Blake

David Blake, currently a visiting scholar in Environmental and Urban Studies at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, is an expert on the Mekong River basin and a longtime fan of our work. He recently asked us if he could raise funds for our work in the region, and we accepted. The plan? He would run a marathon, cultivate sponsors, and give us the proceeds. This is his story.

I can trace my fascination with rivers back to happy childhood hours spent fishing for wild brown trout and assorted coarse fish species in the ponds and overgrown streams of the Sussex Weald in Southeast England. Later on, when I found work as a Voluntary Services Overseas fishery instructor at an agricultural college in Northeast Thailand, I recalled my formative years angling on brooks often no more than ten feet wide. In 1991, it was a humbling experience to cast my eyes for the first time across the vast expanse of the Mekong River where it separates Thailand from Laos near Nong Khai.

I was awestruck by the deep, swirling, coffee-coloured waters flowing resolutely by – the river seemingly untouched by the hand of man. It was a marked contrast to the cultivated sandy banks and skyline of red-golden-roofed temples, interspersed with tall coconut and spreading raintrees that announced the location of occasional villages in the distance. No structure imaginable could check the flow of such a majestic river, which stretches nearly 5,000 kilometers from its icy sources in the high Tibetan Plateau down to the rice paddy landscape of the Vietnamese delta, braiding into nine channels (the so-called “Nine Dragons”) before it deposits its nutrient-rich heavy sediment load in the South China Sea.

Traveling on the Mekong.
Traveling on the Mekong.
International Rivers

From the south bank, looking across the imaginary “Bamboo Curtain” to the then largely forbidden shores of Laos, I pondered how many Sussex Ouse’s it would take to match the flow of the middle Mekong. What size and species of fish lurked in those murky waters? Given my personal and professional interest in fish, I resolved to find out more about river known as the Mae-Khong (“mother of waters”) in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, but the Lancang Jiang (“turbulent river”) upstream in China. 

I have since returned to the Mekong time and again, seeing it in various states of flood and ebb. Each time, that sense of awe and wonder has returned, but in recent years it has been mixed with an impending sense of loss as well.  

Wherever one comes upon the Mekong and its major tributaries, you’re almost always guaranteed to see a number of small-scale fishers out on the water in wooden pirogues. At some points on its course, especially where the river squeezes through rocks, or tumbles over rapids into giant whirlpools below, fisherpeople gather at certain times of year to intercept migrating fish. The Hoo Sahong channel was heavily targeted by local fishers, and in certain periods of the year, several tonnes of fish could be caught in a single day. According to one Mekong fishery expert, “Nothing else comes close to it in terms of its bio-ecological function. It is basically irreplaceable if barricaded.” (Terry Warren, letter sent to LaoFAB site, 21 October 2013.)

But barricaded it already is, with the Hoo Sahong channel blocked since February 2016 in preparation for the 260 MW Don Sahong hydropower project. The government of Laos, in close cooperation with MegaFirst Ltd, the Malaysian dam consortium building the dam project, has forcibly relocated the area’s fishers.

A fisherman on the Mekong River.
A fisherman on the Mekong River.
International Rivers

This single dam could affect hundreds of thousands of households that rely on migratory fish as a major source of daily protein and other nutrients and. for many, a decent income. No matter where objections have come from – international or regional civil society advocates, local people’s movements, concerned scientists, WorldFish researchers, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry or senior government officials in Cambodia and Vietnam – the Lao state has consistently ignored or downplayed evidence of likely serious impacts and carried on with its hydraulic mission regardless. 

Decision-makers in Vientiane have been further emboldened by the unilateral actions of China upstream. China has dammed the Mekong at six sites, several more mainstream dams are under construction, and the country has plans to build more in the future. 

I noticed a tangible decline in wild fisheries during my last visit to the river at the start of 2016. Markets once brimming with many types of Mekong fish are now reduced to selling just a few species of farmed fish, which cannot compare in taste, quality or sheer variety.

This environmental decline was predicted some years ago, and vindicated by the main findings of the 2010 Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) commissioned by the Mekong River Commission (MRC). The SEA was picked up and referred to far more by civil society and academic researchers than officials charged with “sustainable development” of the river basin. 

International Rivers’ work is vital at this juncture, as it gives diverse voices a platform in an arena prone to coercion, silencing and censorship. It provides a chance to hold dam builders and governments accountable for their worst excesses. The picture is pretty bleak for the Mekong at the present, but these are beacons of hope for an improved future, with enough momentum for change.

With these beacons of hope in mind, I have set myself the task of completing a marathon to support the vital work of International Rivers in the Mekong Basin. I will be running the Hartford Marathon on Sunday, October 8. I’ve been training in the Blackdown Hills of Somerset through this summer.

It would be fantastic if you could sponsor me to complete the Hartford Marathon, and in doing so, support the efforts of the Save the Mekong program. International Rivers has consistently been a leading voice in advocating sensible, environmentally sustainable and socially equitable river development, both regionally and globally. Thanks so much for your support.

Donate now.


Note: David completed the marathon in 4 hours, 29 minutes and 44 seconds. Congratulations to David! He also raised a significant contribution to the Save the Mekong Program. International Rivers extends a sincere thanks to David and his supporters for their efforts.

David Blake is an independent researcher with many years experience of working in SE Asia. He's currently a visiting scholar at the Center for Urban & Global Studies, Trinity College, CT.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016