A Healthy Mekong River: Priceless

Carl Middleton, International Rivers
Friday, September 19, 2008

The timeless rhythm of the Mekong’s seasonal cycles has nourished and inspired the peoples of the region for millennia. Many rural peoples’ lives and cultures are intimately tied to the river’s health. Even residents of the region’s bustling cities, whose lives appear more distanced from the river, are linked by the cultural richness it spawns.

While China is midway through building a controversial dam cascade on the Upper Mekong, the river’s lower stretch – shared by Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam – has so far escaped hydropower development. Since mid-2006, however, the governments of Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand have granted approval to Thai, Malaysian, Vietnamese, and Chinese companies to investigate eight large mainstream hydropower dams. These dams would change the river’s hydrology and ecology and block fish migrations, having repercussions throughout the basin. Yet, far more is at stake. The dams also threaten to sever the thread that weaves together the region's rich cultural tapestry, and forever alter a unique heritage.

On its 2,700 mile journey from Tibet's glaciers to the South China Sea, the river is a lifeline for over 70 ethnic groups, who know it by many names. Near its mountainous headwaters in China, it is called the Turbulent River. Downstream, where the river widens and the landscape evolves into rice-rich floodplains, it is the Mother of Waters. At journey’s end, in Vietnam’s watery delta region, it is named the Nine-Tailed Dragon.

As the river provides many of life’s basics for both rural and urban populations, it also nourishes their vibrant cultures, inspiring music, dance, song, cuisine, crafts, and rituals. Throughout its course, celebrations of the river abound. Boat races and festivals celebrate the fish harvests and annual cycles of the river. Cambodia’s water festival in November, for example, marks the mass fish migrations from Tonle Sap Lake as it empties into the Mekong.   

The river has inspired a wealth of folklore and vivid mythology. In Laos and Thailand, the "Naga Fireballs" draw tens of thousands who are awed by the reddish-pink orbs that mysteriously emerge from the river. The fireballs are said to be the mythological serpent Naga’s breath, forming a staircase to heaven for the Lord Budda to descend and close Buddhist Lent. If the Naga’s rivery home was turned into a series of placid lakes by mainstream dams, would it continue to work its magic?

Ritual and myth surrounds many of the river’s renowned species. In Cambodia, it is told that the Irrawaddy dolphin is the incarnation of a beautiful girl born to a poor family whose unrequited love for a wealthy man led to her drowning herself. The critically endangered Mekong Giant Catfish, which can grow to almost three meters in length, has also long been revered. In Cambodia, Buddhists pour a medicinal perfume on the massive fish to bring good luck, while around the Mun River in northeastern Thailand, fishers believe that catching one brings bad luck that must be warded off by Monk-led rituals.

Vulnerable and rare species such as the Irrawaddy dolphin and Mekong Giant catfish are now threatened by proposed mainstream dams in Cambodia and Southern Laos that could be their death-knell. Commercial species are also threatened, the importance of which are increasingly recognized by officials and are estimated to be worth at least US$2 billion annually.

They say that to a hammer, everything looks like a nail. So, too, to dam engineers do all rivers look like potential dams sites. Yet the decision-making processes for Mekong mainstream dams largely ignore the potential harms to the river's biological and cultural richness. While there is greater acknowledgment that large dams can be hugely destructive forms of development, in the Mekong region the result has been that these monolithic dams are being examined under a veil of secrecy.

The Mekong River is much greater than the sum of its parts. It is not simply the provider of economic commodities such as fish, irrigation water, and hydroelectricity. It is also the lifeblood of the region, its history and inspiration, and is deeply embedded in the heart and the lives of all. There are better ways to meet the region’s water and energy needs. Instead of choking the Mekong with mainstream dams, it is time that this tired, old development model be replaced with one that celebrates the region’s rich cultural and ecological heritage.